BOOK REVIEW / Easy music floating from a radio: 'Various Miracles' - Carol Shields: Fourth Estate, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
CAROL SHIELDS's short stories are full of sentences you could almost sing.

The feeling they generate - a sensation in the muscles of mouth and throat - is as tactile as eating, and as sensuous. Listen to this: 'Oh, Mrs Turner is a sight cutting the grass on a hot afternoon in June] She climbs into an ancient pair of shorts and ties on her halter top and wedges her feet into crepe-soled sandals and covers her red-grey frizz with Gord's old golf cap - Gord is dead now, ten years ago, a seizure on a Saturday night while winding the mantle clock.'

If you look at the last nine words of the quotation, you can see how the o-a-i-i-i-a-o pattern rounds the sentence off like a curve on a Chippendale chair. Carol Shields is the opposite of the Duchess in Alice - 'Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves' - for it is the sound that drives the sense through all these stories.

On the face of it, this collection draws on nothing but the quotidian lives of the people of Winnipeg and the Chicago suburbs, people who might find themselves outside the temple of the Golden Pavilion or in the Musee de Cluny, but who are only there on a visit and will go back home to the daily realities of boilers and sewing machines and sick relatives and Mini-Marts, and prepare to face their loves and losses and deaths.

Yet Shields's sentences transmute base metal into gold: the choice of incident and image often seems determined by the sound, and the result is poetic and memorable. Lists take on grotesque, beautiful qualities in passages like this: 'Into her care they could safely put the shame of their ancient bunions, their blue-black swollen ankles, their blistered heels. . .

the rasp of old calluses, the yellowness of soles, the damp dishonour attached to foot odour, foot foulness, foot obloquy, foot ignominy.'

The title story is a series of variations on the theme of coincidence (rhyme and assonance are a kind of coincidence, too), with wondrous similarities of names, dreams, parrots, bridges and paragraphs of prose bringing a strangeness to the everyday that runs in a less obviously structured manner through the rest of the stories, and through her other works such as The Stone Diaries, which was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize.

In this story, Mrs Turner and her sisters sally forth to Kyoto, and offend a professor by the contrast they present to the beauties of the golden pavilion: he puts them in a poem, satirising them wickedly, but it is Mrs Turner who wins, by seeing that the point about Japan is that the 'cats and dogs, fences and bicycles and telephone poles' are much as they were at home; 'it is amazing, she thinks, that she can understand so much of the world and that it comes to her as easily as bars of music floating out of a radio.' And that is how these stories themselves come across.

In one of the stories, a widow takes a job demonstrating the Jiffy-Sure-Slicer for Kitchen Kult. She turns out to be remarkably qood at it, but is even better at noticing details like the pink shell on her boss's desk: it's there to make him happy. These stories will stay on my desk, and for the same reason.

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