This book contains the work of a lifetime. The best stories here - and there are plenty of them - need to be read with the same careful attentiveness that Carol Shields brought to their composition. One of her greatest gifts was to take a banal, everyday remark or a commonplace situation and weave something like a magic spell around it.
The luminous "Scenes", from the collection Various Miracles, has a middle-aged woman, Frances, inexplicably summoning up people and incidents from her past: "She thinks of them as scenes because they're much too fragmentary to be stories and far too immediate to be memories. They seem to bloom out of nothing, out of the thin uncoloured air of defeats and pleasures." Frances is married to a zoologist named Theo, who has "a mind unblown by self-regard". Describing their happy mar-riage, Shields observes that "they've invented hundreds of complex ways of enslaving each other, some of them amazingly tender" and then remarks that Frances "turned out to have an aptitude for monogamy", to her and everyone else's surprise.
Many of the "scenes" involve men - strangers glimpsed for a few moments - who have flirted with her. She has relished these brief escapades, which constitute the beginning and end of her unfaithfulness.
Shields understands that it's often difficult to be a good person. Her married couples are presented in subtle ways. Familiarity and routine can be bombs waiting to explode and have to be skirted somehow. In story after story, Shields bestows on her characters sudden revelations of love; a gesture, a thought shared, a quick look of tenderness.
In the early stories, she comes perilously close to cuteness, until she remembers to employ her scalpel. In "Fragility", narrated by a loving, unnamed husband, a couple go house-hunting in Vancouver after having lived in Toronto. He has been promoted and his wife, Ivy, has found a senior position in a firm of accountants. They are hard-working and independent. They see lots of properties, but the only one that takes their fancy bears the signs of a painful divorce. Ivy rejects the place at first, but then the story takes on another dimension with the appearance of their dead son, Christopher, who was born with a fatal condition.
The storyteller realises that the house in Toronto has to be sold, complete with the room in which Christopher endured his short, brave life. "I can't help wondering if these prospective buyers, these people looking for God only knows what, if they'll enter this room and feel something of his fragile presence alive in a fragile world." The story is perfectly poised, from the title onwards.
This Collected Stories means what it says, for everything Shields wrote in this most demanding of forms is included. At the risk of sounding churlish in the face of so much that is pleasurable, I have to record that Shields's forays into parable or whimsy don't have her customary lightness of touch. The humour courts facetiousness and the fell hand of contrivance can be detected. But these are minor blemishes, the price that has to be paid for not being selective.
Shields's art was maturing and deepening right up to the end. The last story, "Dressing Down", shows her at her wisest and funniest. It tells of a determined naturist, "the first serious nudist in southern Ontario", and of his relationship with his patient but bewildered wife. The storyteller is the pioneer's grandson, whose tone is bemused and kindly. There is a surprise towards the close that is oddly moving. "Dressing Down" could have been a farcical exercise, but Shields doesn't take that easy route. What she offers instead is a study in eccentricity that relates it to the ordinary, familiar world. That's the world she never loses sight of, or contact with, in what will endure of her finest fiction.
Paul Bailey's 'A Dog's Life' is published by Penguin
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