“What is the story of a life? A chronicle of fact or a skillfully wrought impression? The bringing together of what she fears? Or the adding up of what has been offhandedly revealed, those tiny allotted increments of knowledge?”
So asks Daisy Goodwill Flett, 80 years old, brought to her knees – and her bed – by a heart attack. And a kidney operation. And two broken knees. She is not dying, not yet. But it’s the beginning of the end. And Daisy, who has spent decades marrying (twice), raising children, cultivating her garden, enjoying a comfortable, easeful retirement, is searching for meaning. What part has she played in her own life? In other words, who is she?
The Stone Diaries, a fictional biography of a seemingly ordinary woman, was Carol Shields’ breakthrough novel. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Governor General’s Award and established her as a member of the authorial elite. It was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Reading it the first time around (1993) was a humbling experience. Struggling to find my own voice as a writer, I was in awe of her ability to delve into the lives of her characters – to carve out layers of being with such finesse, like an archaeologist working with a dentist’s probe and a toothbrush.
Which is, after all, the point of the story. Stone, whether it is being quarried or used as a personal metaphor, is at the heart of the book. Daisy is the daughter of Cuyler Goodwill, a stone mason. Her mother, Mercy, whose maiden name was Stone, died giving birth to her. Her second husband, Barker Flett, is the son of Magnus Flett, a stone mason. And the essence of Daisy Goodwill remains untouched, an uncut diamond waiting to be quarried.
On the surface she is, at various times, a pretty ordinary person with an extraordinary beginning. Her mother, naive and obese, is unaware she’s pregnant. She delivers her daughter on the floor of her home in Tyndall, Manitoba, and dies soon afterwards. Her grief-stricken father hands her into the care of a neighbour who then leaves her husband and heads to Winnipeg, taking the baby with her. Eleven years later Daisy’s father resurfaces. Together they move to Bloomington, Indiana, where he becomes a successful businessman and wealthy member of the community.
Not to give away more than the bare bones of the plot, I will say that from this point on Daisy’s life is, as I said, pretty ordinary. And it is that very “ordinariness” that Shield captures with such brilliance. Like Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence, she has the ability to depict life at its everyday, unremarkable pace with words that reveal a stunning gift for observation and intuition.
Reading the book this time around, I am no less in awe of the author’s talent. But I found much of it more sad than I remembered and I wonder if this is a factor of age. It’s been 24 years. I’m as old now as Shields was when she died of breast cancer. In Victoria, of all places…just across the water. You put the book down and Daisy’s ghost is fluttering somewhere in a corner of the room, persisting, nagging you to ask the question: Who are you? No, but really – who ARE you?
It’s the universal question: who am I? A mother, a wife, a widow, an aunt. But who am I really? The final assessment – whether or not your life was important, whether or not you lived what we might call a “successful” life – is up to others. Those who are left will have the last word. If we’re lucky, they will remember us fondly: “She was a good mom.” “He had a great sense of humour.” “She never had a bad word to say about anybody.” “He was my friend.” It’s not enough – it never is. But for most of us, it’s all we get.