Daisy Goodwill. The very name evokes a benign granny, a turquoise pantsuit type who spends her busy days playing bridge, gardening, shopping and visiting the grandchildren. In fact, at one point in her life, Daisy Goodwill, the main character of Carol Shields’ new novel, is and does all those things. But to reduce Daisy to the sum of those facts is to look at a leaf without understanding what a tree is. In The Stone Diaries (Random House Canada, $26.50), Shields has crafted a small miracle of a novel, a rock-solid monument to the ephemeral nature of all lives, to the different selves a single life can house.
The Stone Diaries reflects the sensuous pleasures and the hard practicalities of everyday life. The book opens in Tyndall, Man., in 1905 with Mercy Goodwill preparing a pudding for her stonemason husband, Cuyler, “pressing the thickly cut bread down over the oozing juices, feeling it soften and absorb bit by bit a raspberry redness.” By the end of the 40-page chapter, there is a recipe for the Malvern pudding, a de
scription of the short, slim Cuyler’s “immense, unfathomable ardor” for his obese wife, and a scene that depicts “the clout of death and the squirming foolishness of birth”—Mercy’s death and Daisy’s birth.
The point of view changes frequently. Daisy herself, still unborn, describes her parents’ upbringing and marriage, her father’s widowhood and his religious conversion. Then other narrators take over— friends, family and an omniscient third-person narrator—each charting Daisy’s path through life. It is as if the Winnipeg author acknowledges in the book’s very structure the limitations of a single point of view—even in a fictional biography.
The narrators have conflicting explanations for the deep depression that Daisy suffers at 59. Daughter Alice thinks her mother is unhappy because she has lost her job. Longtime friend Fraidy blames it on a lack of sex. A former housekeeper attributes it to long-delayed grief over never having known her mother. And Daisy herself predicts her own recovery.
Lyrically written and always entertaining, The Stone Diaries is Shields’ most accomplished novel to date. She has invented the facts—and they are all true.
Two novels by Canadians have been nominated for Britain’s coveted Booker Prize
When Michael Ignatieff published his first novel, Asya, a 20th-century Russian historical romance, in 1991, the book was savaged by most reviewers. Some critics even declared that Ignatieff, a Canadian who lives in London and works as a journalist and commentator, did not have the makings of a novelist. Scar Tissue (Penguin, $25.99) is Ignatieffs triumphant response. The story of a woman’s descent into the shadows of Alzheimer’s, the book was inspired by Ignatieffs mother’s own experience with the disease (it led to her death last year). But Scar Tissue escapes the narrow boundaries of documentary fiction to speak profoundly of the universal human confrontation with death.
The narrator is an unnamed philosophy professor living somewhere in the northeastern United States. When his mother (who, like almost all the novel’s characters, is also nameless) contracts Alzheimer’s, his life falls apart. Abnormally devoted to her, he even-
tually leaves his wife and child and moves to an apartment near the nursing home where she is a patient. Meanwhile, he carries on a debate with his brother, a medical researcher, about the nature of Alzheimer’s. To the brother, it is a concrete medical problem that will someday be solved. But the narrator tends to see the disease as an affliction of the soul—a loss of self amid the fragments of a disintegrating memory.
In the course of the novel, the narrator ruminates on such subjects as King Lear, the scarring in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, and the meaning of suffering. But his intellectualizing is always fiercely and directly connected to his experience. He sits by the hour with his mother, struggling to commune with her down the narrowing pathways of her perceptions, as she slowly turns into a bent, slobbering, unremembering creature.
Scar Tissue is ultimately tragic. For while the narrator’s brother holds out the hope of eventual relief from Alzheimer’s, the novel also uses the disease as a metaphor for mortality itself. The only consolation that Scar Tissue offers is its eloquence, and its portrait of people’s capacity to face the darkest mystery of all.
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