Saturday, 26 December 2009

Negotiating with the Dead

In her book about writing, Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes, ‘you have never met the author of the book you have just read because too much time has elapsed between composition and publication’ (p.32). She goes on to remind the reader that ‘writer and audience are invisible to each other; the only visible thing is the book, and a reader may get hold of a book long after the writer is dead’ (p.43).

Last winter I read a book by Carol Shields. I read it by accident. It had been sitting on my bookshelf for some time, as part of a collection of books that I had bought from a discount retailer and never got around to reading. After I had finished the first chapter I told anyone who would listen that it was already the best book I had ever read. When I reached the end of the book I felt dazed. I tracked back and read my favourite passages again. Then I went on line to find out everything I could about Carol Shields. I discovered that, like me, she had five children, that in addition to novels she wrote short fiction and biography and that she had been dead for five years.

The Stone Diaries tells the life story of Daisy Goodwill, an ordinary woman, except of course, there is no such thing as an ordinary woman. It follows Daisy from her birth to her death and records her triumphs and disasters, which are all of the kind that you or I might expect to experience. Shields is quoted in this review as saying, 'none of the novels I read seemed to have anything to do with my life. So that was the kind of novel I tried to write - the novel I couldn't find.' The Stone Diaries is full of real things - lists, menus, recipes, newspaper clippings, fragments of overheard conversation, photographs, the opinions and theories of Daisy's friends and so much more. It is like a literary patchwork of life.

When The Stone Diaries was published in 1993, I was doing my A levels. When Shields died in 2003 I was pregnant with my fifth child. When I read The Stone Diaries in 2008, I was finishing my BA. I wanted to write and thank her for The Stone Diaries, for writing the kind of novel that had something to do with my life. Discovering that she had died was upsetting - I wished that I had read the book sooner, so that I could tell her how much I enjoyed it.

Margaret Atwood describes the way writers are split in two, she writes: 'the authorial part, the part that is out there in the world, the only part that may survive death - is not flesh and blood, not a real human being' (p.39). Atwood is right, of course, no-one is immortal, and yet, the very best writers create whole worlds that do survive death and while Daisy Goodwill is not flesh and blood, not a real human being, the words which Shields has used to conjure her, project a life that is as real, and full, and true as any you might watch unfolding or experience yourself.

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