Unless by Carol Shields

Michèle Roberts salutes a famously nice writer's portrait of the nasty side of family life
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Mothers have searched for their lost daughters in literature ever since Demeter plunged into the underworld to bring back the errant Persephone. Carol Shields' intriguing new novel mines this rich tradition to moving effect.

Girls growing up are supposed to identify with mothers, but also have to work out how to separate. Since there's no obvious sign of difference offered, as with fathers, you have to find one for yourself. This process is characterised by love and hate, all mixed up so chaotically that it can feel easier to deny ambivalence and opt for one emotion.

While many female teenagers choose rebellion, acting out their hating side, cutting off with ferocity from the matriarch, others become fearful and too loving, shadows of Mum. Some dodge the issue by finding a self via silence and fantasy. The quest is complicated, of course, by the mother's own feelings about womanly power.

Mother-daughter relationships have become a staple of fiction in the last 20 years. The new wave of feminism gave the angry daughter her voice. Now those writers, grown up, tackle what it's like to be the mother in the love affair that's also a fight. Unless surveys this terrain from a cautious distance.

Norah, the anguished daughter, picks rejection via retreat. Talented, hard-working and sensitive, she has a caring boyfriend, a place at university, affectionate sisters and two nice, happily married parents. This set-up, presented with Shields' classic sincerity as admirably normal, may strike cynical or envious readers as just a bit too goody-goody to be true. The family's very happiness seems to cut them off from recognising the plight of the less fortunate – a fact stressed in the dénouement.

Norah chooses to abandon all home comforts, drop out of college, and abandon her boyfriend. She sits begging on a Toronto sidewalk, and sleeps in a hostel. She refuses to speak. She wears a cardboard sign around her neck that says "Goodness". Her family, who visit her with offerings of food and clothing, don't understand where their sweet Norah has gone.

Carol Shields' novels have always celebrated the heroes and heroines who can express grace, love and humour while raising children and coping with all life's ups and downs. Her vision can seem too cosy, even sentimental, her belief in goodness too idealistic. Her female protagonists never get angry. Secondary characters, loud-mouthed feminist career women, do that. But this time, Shields invents a heroine forced to discard her suspicion of feminism and tiptoe towards it, learning to ask questions about social exclusion and human justice.

Reta, Norah's mother and the novel's first-person narrator, has avoided the conflicts that beset many modern women by believing that self-fulfilment means selfishness; neglecting your loved ones. A writer who has always kept her work on the back-burner, she appears to live out the myth of the good wife and mother.

She has fallen into writing almost by default, fitting it in around the housework, producing first translations of other women's memoirs, then entertaining anthologies, finally a humorous novel. Irritating as she is, because she doesn't take her writing seriously, Reta elicits our sympathy. We witness her painfully observing how she has accepted masculine notions of femininity; how male writers certainly do not respect female writers such as herself. Aided, perhaps, by Norah's sign, she is forced to re-think her notions of virtue.

Reta's alter ego is Danielle Westerman, the activist whose memoirs Rita translates from French. Single, passionate, uncompromising, Danielle proposes that Norah is expressing her sense of powerlessness. If you're constantly told you mustn't whinge because in a post-feminist world young women can have it all, what are you supposed to do when you encounter injustice? The reader can't help feeling that if Norah had been permitted to meet Westerman, she would have learned that domestic saints can sometimes find the courage to complain.

Norah's distress is finally located in a traumatic event originating at a safe distance from her family. A convenient plot device enables her to return home. She encounters a mother who has never believed in the unconscious, or in repression, but who does now know she must listen to herself as well as to her daughter. This is Carol Shields' most interesting novel to date.

Michèle Roberts' short stories, 'Playing Sardines', are published by Virago