Once again, thanks to Lisa at ANZ LitLovers for the book and the opportunity to flex my reviewing muscles. Cross-posted at ANZ Litlovers.
Chicago-born latter-day Canadian Carol Shields was an Orange Prize-winner, a short-listee for the Booker Prize and the 1995 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and one comes to Dressing up for the Carnival (published in 2000, 3 years before her death) with rather high expectations.
So when I say that some of the stories in this collection left me unmoved and nonplussed, I think you will understand that the shortcomings are likely to be mine as the reader. Specifically, it was the tales with a humorous slant – like ‘Weather’ in which the National Association of Meteorologists goes on strike – that I didn’t quite latch on to.
Elsewhere though, Shields just nails it.
The title story is, for me, about identity. It’s about the way we package ourselves. That old adage ‘Clothes maketh the [wo]man’ resonates beneath Shields’ sure pen. And, if not clothes, then props: like a mango (“An elliptical purse, juice-filled, curved for the palm of the human hand.”) or a bunch of daffodils (“They form a blaze of yellow in his arms, a sweet propitiating little fire.”)
The final story is about clothes too…or lack of them…or more particularly, what we become without them.
Sandwiched between these two stories, are some delightful fillings:-
‘A Scarf’, the purchase of which is to suit a very specific purpose.
The narrator – a fledgling author at a loose end in a strange town – spends hours choosing the precise scarf for her daughter who “had always been a bravely undemanding child” but the scarf finds its own – totally different – purpose to serve.
‘Dying for Love’, in which three women – separately – contemplate suicide.
Shields doesn’t give us maudlin drawn-out violin strings. Beth merely “wonders what would happen if she took all twelve pills plus the gin” before ditching the lot in favour of a hot milk. On the brink of jumping from a bridge, Lizzie recalls she is a brilliant swimmer. And Elizabeth realises “she has the power to create parallel stories that offer her a measure of comfort”.
‘Windows’ is a sort of reverse ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and a study of lives diminished by a lack of windows. Aesthetics, imagination, art and deprivation culminate in such descriptive gems as this:
Glass is green like water or blue like the sky or a rectangle of beaten gold when the setting sun strikes it or else a midnight black broken by starlight or the cold courteous reflection of the moon.
‘New Music’ is my favourite story – a real standout in this collection.
It opens with a young woman explaining to a man she has just met why she prefers to study the second-best composer, rather than the best.
As a writer, I empathised with the woman – soon married to the man she met in the opening paragraphs and with three children – who gets out of bed one hour before the others in the household. To do what? To make breakfast scones for her family? To iron clothes? Prepare for her day at the office? No. She spends her gifted hour writing at her desk, dressed in her “old and not-very-clean mauve dressing gown”. Yes – most writers have one (mine is blue and equally not very clean).
The wife and mother in ‘New Music’ has completed her 612 page biography of the second-best composer and the manuscript has been sent to a “a reasonably distinguished publishing house – though certainly not the best”. After publication of the biography (and a suitable hiatus spent catching up on the housework and bonding with her children), she is finally tempted to write about the number one composer and we sense an immediate shift in the dynamic.
This woman who previously found ‘second-best’ her forte, who loves her middle child (“neither clever nor exceptional in appearance” ) the most, is busy and preoccupied. “Her word processor sends out blinding windows of authority” as she begins to look at her husband “with an odd, assessing, measuring clarity” and we know that her husband might think he belongs to the days of ‘second-best’.
Shields, Carol, Dressing Up for the Carnival, Fourth Estate, London, 2000.