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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Reta Winters, the protagonist of Unless, has difficulty expressing, even to herself, the nature of her feelings of grief—whether she cares more about her daughter Norah’s current activities or about how that behavior reflects on her as a mother. She understands significant aspects of her identity as connected to the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s, but she also identifies strongly as a wife and mother. Norah, who is about twenty, has recently started sitting on a street corner, silently awaiting alms while bearing a sign that reads “Goodness.” She does not want to explain herself to her family.

Norah sits cross-legged with a begging bowl in her lap and asks nothing of the world. . . . This is the place she’s claimed, a whole world constructed on stillness. An easy stance, says the condemning, grieving mother, easy to find and maintain, given enough practice. A sharper focus could be achieved by tossing in an astringent fluid, a peppery sauce, irony, rebellion, tattoos and pierced tongue and spiked purple hair, but no.

Reta, now in her forties, has worked primarily as a translator but has also written original works. Reta reflects on the aspirations she once held—but has now given up—of writing a serious novel. She reviews the characters and plot outline that she had developed for the now-abandoned work. Decades later, she views it as not only conventional but derivative, and she wonders what had engaged her about the lives of those ordinary people. She realizes now that the artifice she had loved represented an escape from her own life, which she could not admit she believed was perfect.

I thought I understood something of a novel’s architecture, the lovely slope of predicament, the tendrils of surface detail, the calculated curving upward into inevitability, yet allowing spells of incorrigibility, and then the ending, a corruption of cause and effect and the gathering together of all the characters into a framed operatic circle of consolation and ecstasy . . .

One of Reta’s major challenges, therefore, is that she tends to view her life as a draft for the fiction she prefers. She understands her attitude as realistic, but she seems committed to escapism. Some as-yet-undefined quality in her life is unfulfilling, and she thinks writing a second novel will resolve that absence. Even in struggling to understand Norah’s motivations, Reta imagines this quest as the material for a book. She has already take a few steps and apparently plans to accelerate her efforts to understanding her daughter. Her confusion about the relationship between fact and fiction manifests itself in plans to write about a protagonist who “was not as happy as she deserved to be.”

This will be a book about lost children, about goodness, and going home and being happy and trying to keep the poison of the printed page in perspective.

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