Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Review - "Unless" by Carol Shields

A perfectly normal, healthy and congenial nineteen-year-old young woman who grew up in a closely-knit and nurturing well-to-do family suddenly quits university, her family and her boyfriend to panhandle in a street corner of downtown Toronto.

The novel is the youngster’s mother’s account of her experiences in dealing with the shocking loss of her lovely eldest daughter. She makes a desperate attempt to come up with possible reasons for her derelict daughter’s inconceivable action. Being a translator (from French to English) of memoirs written by a renowned French feminist, who has long influenced her worldview about gender inequality, she develops a bent towards the theory that her daughter’s action is an expression of her powerlessness in face of the world’s entrenched prejudices towards women; her only defense is withdrawal from life altogether. Interviewing her daughter’s boyfriend and university professor doesn’t provide any rational clues. Her desolation drives her to write imaginary letters lashing out at those writers whom she considers as sexist bigots. Meanwhile, she struggles, along with her husband and the other two daughters, to continue living life as normal as she can manage, being aware all the while though of the big hole left in the fabric of the household.

The denouement comes as quite disturbing but not too much of a surprise. In these modern times, we all know how a traumatic event could exert damaging mental stress on an otherwise perfectly normal person. But the reader is left to wonder if the immediate tangible cause (a traumatic event) is the only cause that fully explains the youngster’s abrupt self-abnegation. Could there be an ultimate cause too? Could the mother’s maternal instinct be correct – that the intangible cause is the incremental build-up in the girl’s young mind of innate fear and powerlessness evoked by what she perceives as a male-dominant universe in which she would never achieve greatness?

What’s so haunting about this novel is the realization that not even parents' sacrificial love can shield their vulnerable young girls from some of the world’s harshest realities.

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