I must admit that after I read this book, I was very disappointed that it wasn't more widely embraced during Canada Reads 2011, especially since Carol Shields's work has become so respected both at home and abroad. I suspect that one of the reasons that Unless didn't win was because it tackles questions that make us very uncomfortable. What is goodness? What does it mean to be a good person? Is it even possible to be a good person in a very unequal world? And, perhaps the least appealing question of all - is feminism's work really done?
Most people nowadays hear the word feminism and groan. I've heard it associated with every radical trick in the book, from bra burning to political lesbianism to the use of animal hosts for pregnancies - none of which, in my view, are worthwhile. I think it's important to acknowledge that women, at least in North America, have made enormous gains in the past century or so. It's awfully nice to have things like the vote, pay equity, maternity leave, and independent bank accounts. Nevertheless, women still have a way to go; after all, we still make up a minority of authority figures and decision-makers in society. Men still hold most positions of power, and Carol Shields argues, in Unless, that this, among other things, limits the amount of goodness that can exist in the world.
There are tons of other things that Shields has to say about goodness, a key theme in the novel. Needless to say, it's a very challenging theme to take on, because everybody has something to say about it, and most of our individual answers vary widely. Nevertheless, in this book, Shields is reminding us that it's important to have these conversations about goodness - not just regarding its relationship to gender, but also to class, political affiliations, and even literature, since all of these things can be strongly impacted by power dynamics. I thought that her use of a writer as a protagonist was particularly effective in making this clear. However, what I believe to be the most profound thing about this book - and I hope you read it, if you haven't already - is that you will be wondering about the nature of truth itself. I believe that you will never think of literature, power, or goodness in the same way again.