Governor General’s Award for English Language Fiction 1993 / Pulitzer Prize 1995
The Stone Diaries is Carol Shields’ most famous novel. Famous because it is the only novel ever to have won both of the awards noted above – Shields was an American-born naturalised Canadian and thus, eligible for both prizes. Famous also because it is Shields’ masterpiece.
Daisy Goodwill’s life spans the 20th century. Born during the first decade, she dies in the last. Her fictional autobiography is paced to match. One chapter per decade. Her life is that of a commonplace woman – a woman who never claims her own life but blends into the background during the normal life arc of childhood, marriage, motherhood, widowhood, old age, death.
So how does Daisy manage to retain the reader’s interest in her ordinary, everyday existence? With a rich and varied cast of secondary characters observed and imagined in a vivid and entertaining way. Chapter 1 holds a humourous but wholly imagined account of her mother and father’s marriage, cut tragically short by her mother’s death in childbirth. Chapter 2 holds the account of her childhood – adopted by her Aunt Clementine, a feisty woman who leaves her husband because he refuses to foot the bill for a trip to the dentist. Chapter 3 the history of her courtship and first marriage, which ends unconsummated on honeymoon when hubby meets a premature end. Thus is the pattern set – Daisy’s “normal” life is punctuated by not-so-normal events and a cast of colourful characters.
Narrative texture is added by the use of multiple techniques. The voice shifts from first person to third person and back again. Sections of the novel are written in epistolary form. Adding authenticity to the autobiographical tone, the book contains a series of photographs in the centre. Shields once spoke of her delight in “the freedom to create”, a freedom she uses to the max in this novel.
In this series of snapshots Daisy tells us only what she wants us to know. The group discussion uncovered a number of hidden subtexts – particularly with regard to her two husbands!
Amazingly the discussion turned to dispute when considering whether The Stone Diaries is a sad book. It wasn’t the inevitability of life ending in death but the image of an old lady in a turquoise tracksuit living out her days in Florida, her family scattered to the four corners of the earth. Daisy, still refusing to assert herself, remains uncomplaining but leaves life as she entered it – alone. It’s not until her grown children are clearing away her possessions that they find evidence of the woman they did not know.
True to life it may be. But I find that sad …. and tragic that they choose the wrong flowers for her funeral.