The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

“There are chapters in every life which are seldom read and certainly not aloud”

Carol Shields was born in 1936 and died in 2003. She had five children and her first novel was accepted in the week she turned forty. She went on to become a prizewinning novelist and an academic with an interest in women’s rights. The ‘Stone Diaries’ 1993 is her most famous book. it was shortlisted for the Mann Booker prize and went on to win the Pulitzer prize and the Governor General’s award in Canada. In many ways it reflects her own domesticity as well as her wider aspirations.

The Stone Diaries chronicles the life of a typical woman and housewife through the 20th century. Daisy Flett becomes an everywoman asking the question, ‘What has the century delivered to women?’ In many ways it is a sad book, beginning with a death in childbirth and ending in Daisy’s own lingering death with her last words unspoken; “I am not in peace.” And yet Carol Shields herself claimed never to have written with such happiness and the book has moments of joy and humour and is written in a manner to please and intrigue.

It purports to be Daisy’s autobiography and follows the design of a 19th century biography with title sequences, photographs, a family tree and various household lists. It is a book about biography and memory: what we can truly remember of our own lives and how much is shaped by other people’s memories and anecdotes. As such it is written partly in the 1st person and partly in the 3rd with Daisy as narrator- albeit an unreliable one. Her life is cut into every ten years, a device which forces us to become active readers as we fill in what is not overtly revealed. Much use is made of of letters which also forces us to read between the lines.

Daisy’s life began with the death of her mother Mercy Stone Goodwill, an orphanage girl who didn’t even know she was pregnant, but who had a gift for homemaking and cooking and died in the act of making a Malvern pudding for her husband. The novel follows Daisy through childhood, a disastrous first marriage and then a settled state with a rather dull older husband, becoming a mother of three and a maker of excellent meatloaf. In widowhood she becomes a gifted gardener, going on to write a weekly column for a newspaper. This is a period of fulfilment and happiness before she is unfairly ousted by a rival male reporter. Later, with blue-rinse and turquoise pant suit, Daisy moves to a retirement condominium in Florida until finally she dies in a nursing home. It is a seemingly uneventful and unfulfilled life, her true feelings only occasionally revealed in conversational asides, but there are moments of joy as she laughs with her friends in an Anne of Green Gables manner, or as she plays bridge and jokes with the ‘four flowers’ in the retirement village. However, over this life hangs the shocking event, never subsequently referred to and unknown by her children, of the sudden end of her first marriage, a jolt to the reader as well as to Daisy.

This is an intricate novel with a wide cast of characters, in many ways a family saga but written with subtlety and delicacy and loving attention to domestic detail. In this and in the skill with which Shields lets the characters reveal themselves, she is reminiscent of Jane Austen of whom she wrote a biography in 2001. It is a multilayered novel in which she uses ‘stone’ as a metaphor for strength and endurance but also constraint. Her father’s monumental stone in memory of her mother also stands for the other women in the novel who endure. But Daisy’s beloved flowers are also a theme and a symbol of life and freedom.

The members of the Book Club all found this a satisfying and enjoyable read, commenting on the poetic language and its wide span historically and geographically. Readers may  enjoy her last novel ‘Unless’ 2002, also shortlisted for the Mann Booker prize as well as the Orange prize.

Heather Mines