The Stone Diaries is another of the Booker Prize novels that, having first read it, has lain dormant on my bookshelf for more than 20 years. It is a fictionalised autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, an ordinary woman born in Manitoba, Canada in 1905 who drifts through life until her death in Florida more than 80 years later.
Daisy’s entry into this world is dramatic – her obese mother dying on the kitchen floor unaware that she is pregnant. And, whilst by most standards the rest of her life is relatively uneventful (if comfortable), Daisy’s birth is far from her last major drama – the death of her aunt and guardian killed by a speeding bicycle; her first husband, drunk, falling out of a hotel window in Europe whilst the couple are on their honeymoon.
Yet, by the time of her death in a Sarasota nursing home, Daisy is unquestionably dissatisfied, unable as she has been, to find a true sense of place for herself. A second marriage, three children, numerous grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins have all been part of the previous 40 years – yet still ‘something’ was missing.
Not that Daisy overly dwells on that missing something (or anything else, for that matter). The Stone Diaries is Daisy as witness to her own life, a passive observer to unfolding events. And it is this emotional distancing that is the strength and weakness of Carol Shields’ critically most successful novel.
As a commentary of an ordinary, white middle-class life in North America in the twentieth century, The Stone Diaries is as wholesome as apple pie.
Daisy’s father, Cuyler, through hard work, becomes a successful businessman having moved from Canada to Bloomington, Indiana with his teenage daughter. The death of her husband sees Daisy back in Canada and avoiding the 1929 Wall Street crash that wipes out the finances of her wealthy in-laws. Married to an academic 20 years her senior, Daisy raises three children and a large garden in a many-storeyed, rambling, shambolic Ottawa home. Mrs Green Thumb becomes a successful gardening columnist with a local newspaper following the death of her husband before selling the family home to move into a Florida condo. With her children (and grandchildren) spread around North America and England, Daisy choses to spend her dotage in the world of pink rinses, turquoise pants suits and with friends she made as a teenager in Indiana.
And that ordinary life is about it. Shields, thankfully, avoids presenting that ordinary life as a series of episodic events. The narrative evolves in the present and retrospectively (we’re first introduced to Daisy’s children when Alice, the eldest, is already nine).
But the presentation does err on the flat, matter-of-fact delivery and with very little external influences of the wider world (World War II is mentioned in relation to the birth of the children, no national or global politics feature). Like Daisy looking on, we are voyeurs on a life full of incident but which adds up to not a lot.
A dual Canadian/American citizen, Carol Shields is the only author to have won both the (Canadian) Governor General’s Award for English language fiction and the (American) Pullitzer Prize. But, in spite of The Stone Diaries being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it lost out to Paddy Clarke’s significantly inferior Paddy Ha Ha Ha.