Critics generally divide Carol Shields’s novels into two groups: those novels written prior to her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries and those following. Shields’s first four novels, Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden, Happenstance, and A Fairly Conventional Woman, are domestic in focus and realistic in style. Set in her adopted Canada, they trace the lives of ordinary women in commonplace circumstances who are striving to discover who they are through relationships with other people in their lives. The search for identity is a common theme in these works. The titles of the works suggest the insularity of the women’s lives through words like “small,” “box,” and “conventional.” What marks Shields’s early work is the contrast between the quiet personalities and lives of her protagonists and the strong impression they make on readers, who see versions of their own lives, those of ordinary women, represented on the pages.
Shields’s later novels bear trademarks of postmodernism, a literary style characterized by fragmentation and multiple narrative voices. Whereas modern novelists quest after meaning in their works, postmodern writers question the very possibility of creating meaning through words. Shields’s use of multigeneric forms and multiple, competing narrators places her within this movement. Even prior to The Stone Diaries, her 1987 novel Swann exhibited traits of postmodernism. In Swann, the questionable circumstances surrounding the title character’s death are relayed by four separate narrators, and the final chapter is written as a script. Using this unconventional format, Shields unravels the mystery genre even as she reconstructs the murder of Swann, a once obscure Canadian poet made famous in death. Swann is a precursor to The Stone Diaries, a novel that, in its unconventional approach to chronicling the life of Daisy Goodwill, deconstructs the genre of fictional autobiography. Increasingly, in her later works, including Larry’s Party and Unless, Shields became more emboldened in the use of structures and styles associated with postmodernism.
While at the University of Manitoba, Shields was encouraged by her professors to try her hand at fiction in addition to literary criticism. Her first novel, Small Ceremonies, published in 1976, manages to blend both elements. Inspired by Shields’s scholarly thesis, the novel features a narrator who, mirroring her creator, conducts research on Canadian author Susanna Moodie in order to write a literary biography of Moodie’s life. Although classified as realistic fiction, the novel nevertheless hints at the more postmodern forms that emerge in...
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