"I am interested in reality, with the texture of ordinary life, and the way people appear and relate. I like to write about survivors." This is Carol Shields speaking about writing and providing a framework from which to view "The Stone Diaries."
Ms. Shields, a poet and novelist, has won numerous awards, and "The Stone Diaries" is a finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize. Although Ms. Shields has not received the critical acclaim that fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood has, her books seem to me as accomplished and as elegant, perhaps more so.
A structurally flawless novel told as memoir, "The Stone Diaries" holds photographs, a family tree, letters, invitations, news clippings and other such autobiographical details. The story, part of which is set in Canada, begins in 1905 with the birth of Daisy Stone Goodwill and ends in the 1990s with Daisy's death. In between, Daisy marries twice, bears children and writes a newspaper column on gardening. The plot provides a way to look at the events of this century as well as a way to look at one woman's life, showing how she survives adversity.
One event, especially, shapes Daisy's life: the death of her mother in childbirth. This leaves her an only child "in terrible anguish . . . cursed with the loneliness of an extreme and incurable variety."
Throughout her life, Daisy is driven to fill an emptiness at her center. No matter what she does, she faces this immense loneliness: "This had to do with the vacuum she sensed in the middle of her life . . . Something was missing . . . What she lacked was the kernel of authenticity, that precious interior ore that everyone around her seemed to possess."
Doris Betts' "Souls Raised From the Dead" also deals with the loss -- by divorce -- of a parent. Specifically, the novel studies how this loss affects a terminally ill child. At first, it forces the child to be parent to itself, then causes it to lose heart. The story describes a Southern family's reaction to chronic renal failure as seen in a 13-year-old girl.
Having published eight works of fiction -- this is her fifth novel and her first in more than 10 years -- Ms. Betts originally considered herself a short-story writer. "One of the most obvious things to be said about the short story as a form," Ms. Betts, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, once said in an interview, "is that it seems to stop time, to gather it together, to make it dense and glowing." Her short stories tend to do just that.
Her novels, however, don't always glow and sometimes seem overly long and dense -- including this one. Most of her novels are family chronicles, studying tensions between parents, children and grandparents. These tensions arise from ordinary life and death. Many characters, including some in this book, have Southern souls beset with a re
ligious angst that could have been written by Flannery O'Connor.
Mary Grace Thompson, daughter of Francis Thompson and Christine Broome, is the central character in "Souls Raised From the Dead." As the novel begins, Mary Grace falls from a horse and is rushed to the hospital. She learns that she is in the early stages of kidney failure, and the rest of the book shows how she and her family cope with the illness.
Often, however, the plot seems to go nowhere, so that one doesn't know whose story is being told, or why. When the story line gets back on track, the plot has lost its momentum. Rather than tell the story of a child's battle with the worst kind of adversity, Ms. Betts tells several stories, none of them coming together as a satisfying whole.
Trying to carry on as if things were normal, Mary weakens, falling into a nightmare fantasy land that she has sought as a way of dealing with abandonment by her mother. Finally, she enters that nightmare, seeing it as a place of light and freedom. Here, Ms. Betts' handling of near-death is honest and moving.
Mary's mother, who deserted her husband and daughter several years earlier, wavers between love for her daughter and worry over her own appearance. Mary's maternal grandmother and grandfather try to awaken their daughter's maternal instinct. Mary's paternal grandmother prays while remembering and reciting most of the text of Francis Thompson's (she named her son after the poet) poem "The Hound of Heaven." The paternal grandfather talks incessantly, as if he feels a need to fill pages, a need he shares with most of the other characters in the story.
Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.
Title: "The Stone Diaries"
Author: Carol Shields
Length, price: 361 pages, $21.95
* Title: "Souls Raised From the Dead"
Author: Doris Betts
Length, price: 352 pages, $23