BOOK REVIEW / Picture window on a made-up world: 'The Stone Diaries' - Carol Shields: 4th Estate, 12.99

Lindsay Duguid
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:16

CAROL SHIELDS has the gift of writing as though she had been there. She recounts the story of Daisy Goodwill - from her birth on the kitchen floor in Manitoba, Canada, to her death in an expensive Florida nursing-home, nearly 90 years later - in a genuine storytelling voice: warm, humorous, full of dry asides and irresistible detail. At Daisy's wedding, 'the port is low in the glasses now, the lovely candles flicker - for a window has been opened to the breezes of the night. Mr Goodwill pulls back his small compact shoulder and warms to his thesis.' When Daisy's father-in- law returns to the Orkneys in old age: 'No one has a scrap of news or even an address. No one, if the truth were said straight out, cares about Magnus Flett's whereabouts or state of mind or whether or not the old grumbler is alive or dead.'

In fact, The Stone Diaries rescues Magnus Flett from oblivion, along with scores of others whose lives have touched Daisy's: family, friends, husbands, children, the editor who took away her newspaper gardening column, the doctor, the hospital chaplain who confides in her on her death-bed that he is gay, are all made vivid. Daisy's own identity is seen as something particular which matters intensely (as if this were a novel like Jane Eyre) but also something which is part of history. After her death, her son describes her, lamely, as 'wife, mother, citizen of our century' and the chapter headings - Childhood, Marriage, Love, Motherhood - suggest a sort of modern American Everywoman. The texture of the novel, however, insists on solid realities - the Malvern pudding Daisy's mother (who dies in childbirth) is making when she goes into labour, the fan blowing on Daisy's skirts as she gossips with her friends, the bed-jacket her grand-daughter has bought her for hospital. Underlying these are a number of more metaphorical symbols: stone, flowers, towers, romantic novels.

Daisy's meandering life, with its dramas and disappointments, is seen as made up of bits and pieces - we have access to letters, newspaper cuttings, menus, recipes, prayers (each one perfectly in period, along with the clothes and the slang). By the end, Daisy's death is like the death of a friend.

Shields is an exceptionally sympathetic and involving novelist but her books are also finely plotted: after the pleasure of the first reading, subtle patterns emerge; beauties of construction are perceived. She also likes to plant a few small teases and mysteries. Included here are photographs of some of the characters (no source indicated - her own family album perhaps?) which, by claiming to be real, draw attention to the fact that the story is made up. It is a clever device, part of the book's general conspiracy to please.

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