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"The Stone Diaries" by Carol Shields

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Carol Shields’s majestic The Stone Diaries combines several features of excellent fiction: its events unfold in a rending emotional palette because of heroine Daisy’s sympathetic nature; its secondary characters ring true to life (even if sometimes eccentric or even bizarre); it uses multiple symbolic foci which balance each other superbly; and engages us with intriguing shifts in point of view.

But wait, there’s more! Stone Diaries makes unique use of a first-person narrative: there are stretches completely outside Daisy’s awareness, which she could have only learned of second hand, but then Daisy’s voice reasserts itself and focuses on Topic A – Daisy’s life. This now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t quality simulates life, or simulates our awareness of our lives. Ms. Shields does this brilliantly, it will captivate you. I was plunged into the protagonist’s consciousness, and out of it, in a way I had never experienced. And certain parts of this narrative are handled obliquely; written correspondence exhibited chronologically, brings to light a sudden change in Daisy’s life, which ends in a severe bout of depression. The whole works seamlessly – you don’t notice any abruptness or arbitrariness in these changes.

The Stone Diaries tells the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, orphaned in a tiny Manitoba hamlet at the moment of her birth, unofficially adopted by a kindly neighbor lady, whose son eventually becomes her husband and the father of her three children. The home towns of her childhood depend on quarries and stonecutting for their existence, and Daisy’s father Culyer Goodwill has skills in that area. In fact, so extensive are his skills that he builds a monument to his dead wife out of a series of stones that he cuts, and this monument grows
so large that it becomes a tourist destination. He follows this project with a plan to build in his Indiana back yard a miniature model of an Egyptian pyramid, using hundreds of thousands of cut stones. Balance this against Daisy and her husband Barker. Barker, a botanist, has assembled a respectable collection – 23 species of lady’s slippers – but his work takes him into the more prosaic work of hybrid grains and the upper reaches of government service in Canada. Daisy seems dull and unambitious, and her quotidian life is sometimes the despair of her friends. However, she does succeed brilliantly with her garden, and makes it work with the deep understanding of a professional, even a scientist.

Obviously these thematic tropes challenge us to find the deeper, more hidden paths to meaning and intent, and they add greatly to my enjoyment. However, Stone Diaries is a highly enjoyable read just for its sumptuous, elegant prose, and for its worldly wise humor. The author’s craft vaults her to the head of the class – no 20th century novel has a lovelier cadence or appeals to the ear more profoundly or pleasingly.

The Stone Diaries won the 1993 Governor General’s Award for English language fiction in Canada and the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Shields was born in Illinois and was a naturalized Canadian citizen, so she was eligible for both. It’s lucky for the panels that anoint our best literary fiction, because the book deserves these and any other awards that might be available. Important enough to be iconic, enjoyable, balanced, intriguing.
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