Born in 1905, Daisy Goodwill drifts through the chapters of childhood, marriage, widowhood, remarriage, motherhood and old age. Bewildered by her inability to understand her own role, Daisy attempts to find a way to tell her own story within a novel that is itself about the limitations of autobiography.
I have to admit to having mixed feelings about The Stone Diaries and have been thinking about how to word this review for weeks. It is without a doubt a work of brilliance. The story and writing detailing a life lived through two wars, a century of change and yet it’s not about the big events, its about an ordinary life. Daisy Goodwill’s story glides through these events taking us on a journey as she struggles to understand her place in the world and the connections to others that float in and out of her orbit. The seasons come and go, the cycle of life forming the backdrop of her story.
Carol Sheild writes the story as if Daisy is trying to write her life in the form of an autobiography and it gives the story an almost detached feeling, less emotional, than the drama that comes from your typical fictional narrative. There is a wealth of intricate details and observations as she observes not just her own birth, but as age and fragility overtake her, she becomes a witness to her own death and the emotional impact that has on her family. It’s almost as if Carol Shield when writing The Stone Diaries is sat not at a typewriter, but her table, fitting together the pieces of a puzzle! Each person, each moment and event is slotted together into an intricate patchwork, that becomes the ordinary and yet quite amazing life of Daisy. Lived in a century of unapparelled conflict and social change, yet the big events sit on the periphery of the story, while we get to know Daisy’s day to day struggles.
It is a work of immense talent, of in intrinsic understanding of human nature and the infinite variety of human emotions. I revelled in and loved the way Carol Shields celebrated the minutiae of life and the emotional repression that seemed to dog Daisy, of her subjection of all that she could have been in favour of life as a housewife and mother. My only thought was, though I enjoyed the story immensely and recognised the writing was stunning, yet I felt no emotional connection with Daisy as a person. I’m not sure if that was the intent and it didn’t effect my enjoyment of the book. Oddly for me, it mirrored that aspect of Daisy’s I found most striking, her lack of expression of her own needs and wonts. Her life, born from a moment of trauma, seems to have left her suppressing those aspects of her character that would have given her life more meaning.
It is a stunning read, slow paced and full of the ordinary made extraordinary. I just wish that Daisy’s inner most feelings and wants were given more expression.
It is regardless of my own slight reservations, a novel worthy of the title of a modern classic.
About the author
Carol Shields (1935–2003) was born in the United States, and emigrated to Canada when she was 22. She is acclaimed for her empathetic and witty, yet penetrating insights into human nature. Her most famous novel The Stone Diaries was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, along with the Governor General’s Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Happenstance was praised as her tour de force, masterly combining two novels in one. The international bestseller Mary Swann was awarded with the Arthur Ellis Award for best Canadian mystery, while The Republic of Love was chosen as the first runner-up for the Guardian Fiction Prize. In 2020, the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, a North American literary award dedicated to writing by women, was set up in her honor. Her work has been published in over 30 languages.