The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields is the story of one person’s life as she experiences the 20th century (primarily) in North America. There are wars, depression, children, love, work, illness, death and everything else in-between. One of the first books I discussed here was Happenstance, also by Shields. I liked it, but had expected more. TSD was everything I expected from a Shields novel – well-written, surprising, technically impressive and full of interesting commentary on the human condition. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it – it won a Pulitzer Prize, the Governor General’s Award (Canada) and National Book Critics Circle Award.
This is the good stuff. Every detail speaks to every other detail, and there are layers underneath the layers. One example: the title – The Stone Diaries – works on several levels. The book is a ‘diary’ of Daisy’s life – and her mother’s maiden name is Stone (though we know nothing about Mercy Stone’s family). Daisy’s father and father-in-law were both stone cutters in rural Canada in the early 1900s, and her father eventually made his fortune selling a popular limestone in Indiana. After Daisy’s mother dies, her father constructs a tower of stone around her grave. The tower becomes so big that it attracts tourists to the area. He also starts a stone pyramid in Bloomington after returning from a trip to Egypt, but never finishes it. These are only the references to stone I can immediately recall – there are dozens more.
The book has an interesting structure. It is written as a biography or journal – including letters from relatives and supposed family pictures – but is a work of fiction. The book is separated into different sections – Childhood, Love, Ease, Death, etc. Each section is presented differently. For instance, the section where we learn of the unusual circumstances of Daisy’s birth is narrated by an omniscient Daisy. Daisy tells how she imagines her birth (and the mother she never knew) based on the facts she’s been given. This is the only section where we truly get a first-person account of Daisy’s life – the part she had no personal recollection of.
After her husband dies, she writes a column for the local newspaper. This section is presented via letters written to Daisy – nothing written by Daisy herself or even any events narrated in a third-person. She is writing for a living, but we don’t see any of her writing. I am certain this is a deliberate attempt to illustrate her powerlessness, she has a ‘voice’ in her writing, but in the end she is ‘let go’ so a man could have the job.
There is a different form for each section, but it is never choppy or a case of style interfering with story-telling. I never lost interest and was always wondering what was coming on the next page. Shields is a master at conveying not just events, but experiences. This one goes in the permanent collection.