A review of The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
‘I have never written with such happiness,’ wrote Carol Shields in a 2001 afterword to her award-winning novel of the previous decade, The Stone Diaries. Though she goes on to enumerate several reasons why she found the creation of this particular book to be such an enjoyable process, I understood in some abstract way, as soon as I read that sentence, exactly what she meant. Joy radiates from the pages of The Stone Diaries – a quiet, peaceful kind of joy; the sort that brings characters alive, draws reader into its pages, and suggests that the author did indeed appreciate every minute she spent conjuring the fabric of realistic lives from a few narrative threads. It is a joy that cannot be dampened even by a mournful ending, and which makes this novel such a pleasure to read.
Though she won many awards for her fiction – including the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries and, for Larry’s Party, the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women’s Prize) – Carol Shields is a writer I have so far woefully neglected. Happily, her perhaps best-known novel, The Stone Diaries, has recently been reissued by World Editions with a foreword by Margaret Atwood, which seemed like the perfect occasion to read it.
Originally published in 1993, The Stone Diaries is the fictionalised (auto)biography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, a Canadian woman whose life spans most of the twentieth century. Written between the first and third person and incorporating letters, testimonials from family members and even photographs, the novel reads as anything but fiction – readers could be forgiven for thinking it an admittedly rather well-written but real family chronicle. On closer inspection, of course it isn’t: Shields leans on various motifs throughout the book as only really a fiction writer would do, from the stones that appear first in Daisy’s mother’s maiden name and then her father’s lifelong obsession with carving and construction, to the flowers that continually bloom and wither in an echo of the novel’s structure. Yet so sensitively does she tease out her themes, so intensely does she concentrate on the minutiae of her characters’ lives, that the message The Stone Diaries wishes to impart slides into our minds without our really noticing.
In part a chronicle of the twentieth century – world events and changing social attitudes are mirrored carefully in the novel – The Stone Diaries is largely a novel about women. Daisy Flett, the central character, is surrounded by an entire cast of carefully crafted female figures, from her meek mother, Mercy, to feisty Aunt Clarentine, the woman who raises her, and her different but equally headstrong daughters, Alice and Joan. Shields’s expert steering of the narrative, which occasionally sees Daisy forced out by periods of depression or illness that allow these other characters to voice their opinions on her, helps to build a complex portrait of a life to which we wouldn’t otherwise have access. For Daisy is a very ordinary woman, her life the sort that would normally go entirely unremarked – a life that boils down to ‘the problem of how to get through a thousand ordinary days’. A few extraordinary things do in fact happen to her – her birth, for instance, is quite a story, as is the fate of her first marriage – yet no one but the reader seems to know or even consider these episodes until it is too late. Daisy Goodwill Flett is ‘merely’ a woman, and the fact that her life seems so unremarkable to others is, Shields seems to be saying, all the more reason for us to celebrate it.
For much of the novel – helped along by a rather detached third-person narrator – Daisy seems to be exactly as she is later described: a woman who ‘had veered, accidentally, into her own life’. Apart from the briefest of periods in which an unexpected job helps her take control, to live more intensely than she has ever done before, events seem to happen to her, not the other way around, and she is passed like a willing pawn along a series of not-unkind men. Though the position of women in society does change over the course of the novel, by the time we reach its conclusion we are left with a slightly sour taste in the mouth. Despite their increased freedom, even the younger female generation of the Flett family seems defined by the labels society sticks on them: divorced, middle-aged, mother, wife. And this is truer of none more so than Daisy, whose life we are allowed to read about with pleasure until the final chapter. Here, Shields presents us with a series of lists: old to-do and shopping lists, but also lists that in some way define Daisy’s life – the books she has read, for example, or illnesses suffered. And here, most tragically, is a list of things Daisy never experienced: small things, like jalapeños; bigger ones, like Vienna; and the tidily presented but cutting revelation that she never heard the words ‘I love you’.
Having read this far with a degree of contentment – I enjoyed the escapism offered by a historical setting, relished Shields’s depictions of everyday life in small-town Canada, the eccentric but recognisable characters that crop up continually, the slightly absurd social niceties, the details of Daisy’s gardening column – I found myself suddenly bruised, forced to re-evaluate my perception of the novel and think about what Shields was really trying to tell me. It is, as I read it, a pertinent message for the moment: that a life, when it comes down to it, is not what is written on or remembered about it, but what is really felt by the person living it. That the big things may be all very well, but what actually counts is the small stuff, the details of the everyday. That it can be hard to ever truly know another person, but the least we can do is try to see – really see – them. As the subject of a novel, Daisy Flett may be seen, but even to the reader she is invisible until the end.
One of those secretly powerful books that can be enjoyed on many levels, The Stone Diaries is a striking work of literature that deserves its place as a modern classic. Tightly narrated, sparkling with wit, but with a serious underlying message the reader can take away and ponder, it is a beautiful meditation on the ordinariness of life, on women, on society, on the very concept of biography. ‘What is the story of a life?’ Shields asks. ‘A chronicle of fact or a skilfully wrought impression?’ I suspect, as The Stone Diaries so admirably shows, that the answer lies somewhere in between.