Carol Shields, writer who 'gave voice to unsung women,' dies of cancer at 68

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The Independent Culture

Carol Shields, the quiet revolutionary whose novels of women's lives and dreams won her late but universal admiration, has died at the age of 68. The Canadian author of 10 novels and three short-story collections had suffered from breast cancer for four years, but had been working on a new book at her home in Victoria, British Columbia.

Her long-standing editor, Christopher Potter of Fourth Estate, yesterday described her writing as "like the woman: ardent, smart, generous and open". The novelist and critic Michèle Roberts said Shields "gave voice to the unsung and unvalued lives of women hidden from history".

Born in Chicago in 1935, the daughter of a sweet-factory manager and schoolteacher, Carol Shields studied in Indiana and at Exeter University. In Britain, she met a Canadian engineer, Donald Shields, who she married in 1957; they had five children, and 11 grandchildren.

In Canada, she taught in Ottawa and Winnipeg, where she began to write poetry and fiction as her children reached adulthood, and eventually became chancellor of the university. Her debut novel, Small Ceremonies, appeared in 1976, when she was 40, but British readers were only introduced to her work with the publication of Mary Swann by Fourth Estate in 1990.

The 1990s brought Carol Shields a steadily rising profile, along with a wave of critical and commercial success. After Happenstance and The Republic of Love, The Stone Diaries was shortlisted for the Booker in 1993, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. In 1998, Larry's Party - which, unusually, centres on a male protagonist - took the Orange Prize. She then wrote a short, sharp biography of Jane Austen - very much a kindred spirit.

Last year, Shields's novelUnless triggered a chorus of heartfelt praise and reached the Booker shortlist. During its composition, in an interview with The Independent, she said: "I always love to be in the midst of a novel - having one foot in one world and another in the real world. It is an interesting and happy place to be."

Shields's characters, outwardly conventional women, straddle the worlds of domestic routine and boundless imagination. They do their duty by family and community while, mentally and sometimes practically, testing the limits of their roles against the needs of their souls. In Unless, a middlebrow woman writer is plunged into a reassessment of her existence by her daughter's rebellion. She realises that women's "power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths".

Michèle Roberts said the ingenious and artful forms of Shields's books reflect "a clash between the feminine imperative to love and look after people, and the more aggressive imperative of the artist". Her fiction may explore domestic reality, but it scorns the rules of domestic realism. The Stone Diaries takes the form of a mock-autobiography, complete with photos, while Happenstance offers a wife's and husband's story back-to-back. Roberts described Shields as "a very ruthless writer, as well as a calm and lovely one".