Date Posted: April 11, 2011
Print Edition: April 8, 2011
The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields, is the life story of a woman who never fully understands herself. The protagonist’s uncertainty is disquieting and creates a haunting story about irresolution and lack of fulfillment. Shields is a Canadian novelist and poet renowned for her writing of ordinary lives with perceptive depth and sympathy. Here she presents a tale that never fully defines the protagonist, instead impressing upon the reader the restrictions of the biographical novel.
Daisy Goodwill’s life is told through ten chapters, the first being named “Birth,” the last “Death.” The division of these chapters carries through to Daisy’s attempt to fill different roles; for example “Motherhood” is oddly set apart from “Work” in Daisy’s behaviour. The attempt to fill roles often overtakes Daisy within her story.
Shields takes us through these years with a shifting narrative, moving from Daisy’s own perspective to the voices of those around her – Daisy’s children, family, friends, often unspecified but clearly close to her. These shifting voices create an intricate, complex story, whose details surround Daisy but never seem to complete her.
The Stone Diaries begins as Daisy’s mother dies giving birth. Daisy is born in the stifling heat of a Manitoba summer, to a Mother who is too obese to recognize her pregnancy. There is a faint, melancholic humour that is rare to come by. Chapter two is composed of letters written between Daisy’s absent father and her guardian, which reveal a quiet “Childhood,” interrupted rather bluntly by Daisy’s innocent interpretation of her guardian’s “long brooding sexual stare” as indigestion.
An intangible sense of the melancholic is present in the following chapters. We despair; this presence cannot be crushed by a vending machine of any sort. “Ease” is Daisy’s retirement, which she lives out in Florida. She is seventy-two, playing shuffleboard, and gluing sea-shells to bracelets for her grandchildren. But despite the motions of contentment (how playing shuffleboard and gluing sea-shells signifies contentment, I don’t really know) Daisy continues to hurl herself at the “emptiness she was handed at birth,” brooding in the oppressive heat of Florida.
Daisy’s last years, in “Illness and Decline” and “Death,” are poignant and heartbreaking. She resides in a hospital after a heart attack, confused, “trying to remember when her body had been sealed and private” as the doctors and nurses swirl around her. Her emotional turmoil is sharp and fades in and out of focus. Eventually she is moved to a care home. Daisy hasn’t figured out her role, and her bewilderment is accentuated by a slow mental decline.
The Stone Diaries is a story with a mood that mirror’s the protagonist’s slow arc in life, an ascending hopefulness that doesn’t peak in a climactic pinnacle but is softly rounded. Her fall poses a contrast; it is a severe drop, sorrowful and cutting.
Daisy’s story is dark but resignedly humorous as life often is. Shields’s book, written in a gentle but powerful narrative, following a heartbreakingly real protagonist, is a genuinely good read. Daisy’s last words are written but never uttered: “I am not at peace.” Had these words been spoken, had they been heard, perhaps something within the story might have been concluded. But Shields leaves us with a sorrowful ending that resonates deeply. Her novel is compelling and quiet, almost a caution, that there is a difference between filling roles and understanding who you are.