1993 the year that Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha won but the judges agreed that The Stone Diaries had 'given us a new kind of heroine'
I'd started and set it aside after the first chapter several times, something didn't engage me, yet other books by Carol Shields have done so since, but not this one. It feels like a vindication of my decision not to dismiss a book as 'not for me', because given the right moment The Stone Diaries has stormed through to a place on my list of best-ever reads, and that has really surprised me.
I wonder if it's something about being a woman approaching ..eeek, the nearer 60 than 50 side of life, and now I feel really sick,(the Tinker reading this may feel even worse) it's the first time I've put that in writing, but perhaps my capacity as I get older is becoming greater to take in a book like this, with its cradle to grave span of Daisy Goodwill Flett's life.
Does a book like this become more meaningful with increasing age, even though despite evidence to the contrary I still seem to think there's been a mistake and I'm really only about 30, 35 at most:-)
For those out there who haven't read the book the opening chapter begins with the traumatic death of Mercy Goodwill immediately on giving birth to Daisy unexpectedly after an undiagnosed pregnancy. These always stretch credulity in my mind even though I have seen several, but this time round Mercy Goodwill's plump innocence and ignorance seemed entirely feasible, when perhaps it was that incredulity that had stopped my reading on those previous occasions, who can know.
Little newborn Daisy is seized on by her unhappy neighbour Clementine Flett who leaves her miserable Orkney immigrant husband Magnus and heads off to Winnipeg to raise the baby until Daisy's stone carver father feels ready to resume his role, which he eventually does. I don't want to recount any more details of Daisy's life in case the one person out there who hasn't read The Stone Diaries happens to be visiting today.
The book is a wonderful mix of biography, autobiography, letters and observations cataloguing Daisy's life and loves, her joys and sorrows through Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Love, Motherhood, Work, Ease, Illness and Decline and finally Death, and not a diary in sight because Daisy loses that at a crucial point in her life, but a mixture of narrative devices that challenge the more accepted pattern of story telling in the most beguiling way.
'At the edge of every experience is the refracted light of recollection, snagged there like an image in a bevelled mirror'
There's something about Carol Shields's use of the word 'snagged'
there, not 'captured' or 'preserved' but 'snagged', as if this image is
trapped unwillingly, slightly distorted, likely to leave some dangling
that won't quite disappear or be woven back in.
Tell it slant as Emily Dickinson said and there were plenty of moments when the narrative tilted into a completely believable truth, as if I was reading of a real life, all given veracity with the inclusion of photos. Yet other moments when I was brought up sharp and forced to consider the very nature of that fiction and all peppered with real-life events.
The wedding of Elizabeth and Philip, a visit to the Dionne quintuplets.
As an aside reading up on the Quints, who I knew had been a tourist attraction but I was unaware of the detail, has all made my hair stand on end, if you're interested there's more here and just see if your hair stands on end too
I sensed an undefinable moment after about 150 pages into The Stone Diaries when the book shifted slightly in my senses, suddenly it felt infused with a warmth that really drew me in, the moment coincidentally when Daisy finds a version of love in her life, and what had gone before becomes the bedrock for what follows...and the stone analogies jumped out every which way I turned. These are mixed in with flower metaphors and I suspect hidden and unplumbed depths to Carol Shield's writing that will be rewarded with repeated readings. The chapters in the book that recount deaths...there are several, are truly remarkable and I can only begin to imagine how hard those must be for any author to imagine and then recount. It must involve facing up to your own final moments in the most painful way.
Knowing almost by heart the contents of Penelope Fitzgerald's book of collected writing House of Air, because I've read it so much the pages are falling out of my copy, I knew that the book contained Penelope Fitzgerald's review of The Stone Diaries and once I had my own thoughts simmering away nicely I turned to that review and was quite surprised.
Penelope Fitzgerald has her reservations about the book, citing some failures in Daisy's post-modern ambition to stand back and report on her own life as an independent witness, and indeed there are ambiguous moments when the narrative voice switches from first to third person whilst remaining through Daisy's eyes that could be called into question, but to me this was one of the book's assets. Those moments that had me questioning the whole genre of autobiographical fiction and how interesting that at the same time (well alongside) The Stone Diaries, my other read has been The Long Song by Andrea Levy which seems to do something very similar.
But what do I know and what does it matter, it doesn't, I have loved The Stone Diaries for so much more than style and form, it's a book about the life of an ordinary and seemingly unremarkable woman, a life infused with detail (always relevant) wisdom (never overbearing) and humour (never cloying) sadness (never sentimental) and an intelligence (never patronising) and I knew as I read that I had found a treasure...and after some of this year's Booker long list reading, a treasure was just what the reading doctor prescribed.
Jay Parini suggests of Carol Shields and The Stone Diaries
' Her words ring like stones in a brook...the reader is caught in whirlpools and eddies, swirled, then launched further downstream.'
Yes, I jumped right into this book up to my neck and relished every word, and knowing that so many of you have done likewise, I'd love to know what made it special for you...