JUST OVER 90 pages into The Stone Diaries, the following observation appears:
When we think of the past, we tend to assume that people were simpler in their functions, and shaped by forces that were primary and irreducible .... But none of this is true. Those who went before us were every bit as wayward and unaccountable and unsteady in their longings as people are today.
Whether this proposition is being advanced by the book's nominal protagonist, Daisy Goodwill Flett, or by the omniscient narrator who is only sometimes Daisy, or by the author herself, is not clear. However, it seems safe to say that anyone who has delved 90 pages deep into Carol Shields's new novel, in which she undertakes an imaginative "autobiography" of a woman, starting with her birth in 1905 and ending with her death in the 1980s, will not care to dispute it. Shields has audaciously created a heroine who is "crowded out of her own life" by forebears, relations, and friends who are generally more interesting than she, and produced a book that is richly detailed, engrossing, unsentimental, and wise.
Her narrative method is undeniably wayward: though she begins the novel with Daisy's uncompromising "My...," the first person singular soon vanishes, to reappear only sporadically from then on. When it does, the heroine's "I" may become "she" within a single paragraph, or other 'I's may make their own thoughts -though not always their identities - known.
Shifting from present to past tense and back again, Shields combines eloquent literary prose with letters, invitations, grocery lists -whatever serves - to evoke specific times and places. Her method works wonderfully well. In fact, it's probably the only way to express what Daisy on her deathbed calls "the adding up of what has been off-handedly revealed, those tiny allotted increments of knowledge" that make up the story of a life.
The book inevitably addresses, but mercifully does not belabour, the hoary question of whether, and how much, art (or memory, always artful) can intersect with objective reality: "The recounting of a life is a cheat, of course ... even our own stories are obscenely distorted" says Daisy (?) at one point. But Shields prefers to explore the issue more obliquely, by engaging in some playful genre-bending. She garnishes her (auto-)biographical novel with the features of a factual biography: a few pages of photographs (some of whose subjects - or do I only imagine this? - seem to bear a family resemblance to the author) I and an extensive genealogical chart. But these connect only glancingly with the text, and Shields also fearlessly endows her heroine's life with more than enough melodrama for any best-selling dynastic pot-boiler. Rendered motherless by her birth, widowed intacta on her honeymoon, and remarried to her much older adopted "brother," Daisy somehow still manages to emerge as a kind of Everywoman for "this mean old sentimental century." By her testament she reminds us just how singular life (and art) can turn out to be.