The Stone Diaries
Carol Shields (1935–2000) is the author of
Penelope Lively is the author of numerous award-winning novels, including
The best fiction surprises — and withholds. Each time that I read
And if you are interested in how a novel is made, it turns into an exercise in narrative technique. And, perhaps, airily — a demonstration of how a novelist can successfully juggle a cast of twenty characters and more over time and space without bewildering the reader.
Here is a story that opens in Manitoba in 1905 and ends in Florida in the 1990s. From birth to death — the parabola of a life, a North American life, with brief excursions to France, to Orkney. Daisy is born into a world that has known neither of the world wars, and in which a woman is required to be first and foremost a domestic support system. She leaves another one in which the globe has contracted and women expect to work outside the home. Her father-in-law sails the Atlantic as a young immigrant from Orkney: At the end of the century Daisy will fly the ocean to trace him. She has experienced the century in a temporal sense, but, as we learn in one of the novel’s deft commentaries, she has never known nude bathing, pierced ears, body massage, and much else that could be seen to characterize the age. Born in “the murderously hot back kitchen” of a Manitoba stone-worker’s home, she will spend her last years in a three-bedroom Florida condo, a Florida bluehead in a turquoise pantsuit.
Kitchens are rich with significance in the novel — kitchens and what is done in them. The vivid opening chapter has the kitchen as the scene of both birth and death, with the Malvern pudding that Daisy’s mother, Mercy, is cooking as an emblem of domestic labor and achievement — the thickly cut bread, the oozing fruit juices, the sugar. Many years later, Daisy prepares supper for her family — husband, three children — in an Ottawa kitchen (summer heat once more, so a cold meal): jellied veal loaf, sliced tomatoes, potato salad, raspberries again, but in little glass bowls. There is care and attention: the formality of a tablecloth, and before her husband’s return from work Daisy “fixes” herself — housedress off, fresh clothes, earrings, lipstick. We are told that Daisy desires — deeply, fervently, sincerely — to be a good wife and mother. She is an assiduous reader of women’s magazines, in support of this ambition. In one of the novel’s many significant asides — how others see Daisy — we are given the possible contrasting reactions of a visiting friend of her girlhood, Fraidy Hoyt, herself unmarried and childless. She is perhaps grimly envious — of the distinguished husband, the big house, the beautiful children; or, is she pityingly contemptuous of this woman drowning in domesticity, child-ridden, who probably hasn’t read a book in ten years?
Teasingly, we are not told which view Fraidy holds, but this is 1947, and it is tempting to see Fraidy as the voice of the future, ahead of her day, already with the assumptions of the postfeminist woman.
Throughout the novel, the authorial voice alternates with those other voices, creating a deliberate ambiguity. We know what happens to Daisy, and frequently she speaks for herself, but we see her also as others see her, and no two people see her in the same way. Was she happy as a domestic goddess? Maybe not, for in the next, and crucial section of the book — significantly called “Work, 1955–1964”—she is shown, entirely obliquely, through a sequence of letters written by others, as immersed in a new role as Mrs. Green Thumb, gardening correspondent for the local paper, and eventually devastated and plunged into a lengthy episode of depression when she gets the sack. So was domestic life not work? This section is one of the most powerful in the novel — clever and funny — and it gives much pause for thought, as we see Daisy’s life of that time shimmer behind the words of other people, and it becomes clear that this is the point at which Daisy has achieved some kind of fulfillment and discovers in herself a capacity of which she had been unaware. She strove to be a good wife and mother, but was she in fact stifled by that role?
The whole novel is a cunning tapestry of evidence. Any novelist is of course in the happy position of being omniscient — of knowing everything about everybody, and deciding just how much information to release to the reader.
After Daisy’s death these conflicting voices are once again heard, but interwoven now with another kind of evidence — the cool and indisputable facts of her life: the sequence of addresses at which she has lived, the illnesses from which she has suffered, the organizations to which she has belonged, the list of her bridal lingerie at her 1927 wedding. These flat lists are indeed evidence of a kind — a biographer could make good use of them — and they serve as a neat indication of the times in which she has lived, but they are also bland and uninformative without the color of an accompanying voice. They are there to demonstrate that facts alone can be both revealing and uncommunicative.
One of the novel’s most arresting features is the attention to detail, the use of detail to evoke time and place, from the ingredients of the Malvern pudding in that Manitoba kitchen to the account of Daisy’s sparse possessions in the hospital room of her last days: a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, a notebook, a ring of keys…. Physical objects are made to provide another kind of evidence, to conjure up the backdrop to Daisy’s life, and they are meticulously chosen and placed within the narrative. Detail is made to define a character: Daisy’s husband, Barker Flett, a senior civil servant with an expertise in botany, is devoted to taxonomy, to the ordering of the botanical world, and we are first introduced to him as a young man with a passionate dedication to the western lady’s slipper, genus