Shelf Life: Carol Shields - The Stone Diaries

‘Not people die, but worlds die in them’

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I’m not sure what made me pick up a copy of The Stone Diaries in a second hand bookshop last year – although I remember reading great reviews, and being aware of its stature as a work, I think for many years I had unfairly considered it to be a ‘woman’s novel’. Maybe it's a cover design thing – those pastel colours and the little bouquet of daisies on the front.

I think I also picked it up out of some curiosity – the Shields family were well-loved neighbours of my wife Andrea and her family back in Ottawa in the late 70s and through the 80s, and I must have perhaps thought the book would give me some insight into that world.

But in fact the book delivered an enormous amount more. Essentially it’s a family saga of four generations, told through the life of the central character Daisy Goodwill. It’s a complicated story which I won’t elaborate on too much – her mother dies in childbirth and she is raised by a neighbour, and eventually marries the neighbour’s son. And the book's father figures – her own, her adopted father, her husband – die young, or walk away from their marriages, into thin air. Children accumulate and the story fans out into their lives and then returns to Daisy as she grows old, the central pillar of the story. A story of one woman’s life, told in a fairly straight line – first chapter is called Birth, the last is called Death.

And it’s astonishing – this seemingly ordinary life, this woman who considers herself to be nothing special. Shields gets right under the skin of these everyday lives and reveals the teeming multitude of every human life. The details, the emotions, the unspoken words, the night thoughts, the little mysteries that pass between family members. I found myself completely caught up – Shields (who died in 2003) has a stunning and uncanny way of maintaining a double focus: as Daisy declines in her last days in hospital, Shields manages with great skill to keep the reader inside the minds of both the central character and those who visit her, unfolding the awkward conversations that float around hospital rooms.

All of this struck me hard when I thought of my own mother’s decline, and the long empty days she spent in hospital wards, sleeping and waking and passing the time. As I read of Daisy’s reveries and thoughts, I wondered what thoughts my mother must have gone through, the childhood memories and regrets and joys, as she floated in and out of sleep in the boredom between visiting hours.

‘Her body’s planet with its atoms and molecules and lumps of matter is blooming all of a sudden with headlines, nightmares, greeting cards, medicinal bitterness, the odours of her own breath and blood, someone near her door humming a tune she comes close to recognising’.

But the larger message of the book is ultimately the same one that I cling to time and time again – as Dylan puts it: ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’. The idea of feeling and experiencing and living every moment to its fullest, as the clock ticks:

‘The larger loneliness of our lives evolves from our unwillingness to spend ourselves, stir ourselves. We are always damping down our inner weather, permitting ourselves the comfort of postponement, or rehearsals’.