The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields, tells the story of Daisy Goodwin, a woman born in Canada during the first decade of the twentieth century and who lived into her nineties. It enables the reader to look at how life changed, particularly for women, during this period.
Daisy’s long life is ordinary if privileged – she enjoyed material comforts but achieved no fame or greatness. The author has written that she started out with the idea of creating a subversion of a family saga but ended up exploring autobiography – questioning if anyone can know the story of their own lives or if it is a narrative borrowed from impressions other people have of them.
“Each day as I sat down to write, I conjured up an image of a series of nesting boxes. I was making the outside box, Daisy was making the inside box – and inside her box was nothing. She was thinking – not writing – her own life story, but it was a life from which she, the subject, had been subtracted. This was the truth, I felt at that time, of most women’s lives.”
The book follows a more or less linear structure but includes recollections. Chapters are given titles such as Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Motherhood. It appears to be Daisy telling her story but with regular contributions from others – friends, family, neighbours. One chapter is entirely epistolary.
A family tree is included at the beginning so the reader is aware of what may be regarded as Daisy’s key life events from the off – births, deaths, marriages, divorces. Her story, though, does not focus on such milestones. With each chapter jumping forward in time a decade or more, they are mentioned in passing. Daisy’s children, in particular, may have considered themselves of vital importance in her life but they were merely one aspect of what shaped her trajectory.
It is interesting to consider how much of what happens in a life is choice and how much a reaction – coping as best one can with the unanticipated, particularly with regard to others. Women have children with no true idea how this will impact on their time and personality. Children live with their parents for, perhaps, a couple of decades before moving on with their own lives. Parents have a before and after that also shapes what they are and become. Partners do not always offer support or even stick around. Friends have their own concerns to deal with and understand only fragments.
“Why should men be allowed to strut under the privilege of their life adventures, wearing them like a breastful of medals, while women went all gray and silent beneath the weight of theirs?”
Daisy’s father worked as a stone cutter in a quarry – hard manual labour but requiring learned skills. Her mother died in childbirth so, as a young child, Daisy was cared for by others. She reconnects with her father and moves to America. Here she finds friends, attends college, meets her first husband. Although coloured by what some may regard as tragedy, Daisy’s early life is one of compliance more than unhappiness.
Daisy develops strong attachments but much of what she goes through – throughout her long life – is not the result of any long term planning. Her ambitions are vague and she appears content to do what is expected, making the best of the situations this leads to. Her second marriage comes about due to a rare action on her part but even this is not acknowledged – at least in the thoughts provided – as a fully formed objective.
At the end of Daisy’s life the focus shifts to how her children deal with a slowly dying parent and then the aftermath, when they come to realise how little they actually knew their mother. It is a reminder of how self-focused even close relationships are.
The strength of the story is in the author’s ability to take what is an ordinary life and inject it with enough interest and tension to maintain reader engagement. The characters may be glimpsed in snapshots but are fully three-dimensional, their concerns and conceits relatable.
Carol Shields is a powerful writer yet her stories flow apparently effortlessly. I have no doubt the themes explored in The Stone Diaries will continue to resonate with me for some time to come. A tale to enjoy and then ponder. Family relationships and friendships laid bare yet offered with love.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, World Editions.