It was a bitterly cold, blustery day in January 2003. I started reading the book at my desk, which was under the eaves next to a small window. There was a small space heater humming near my feet because the walls up there were cold to the touch, and the wind whistled around the window, making it seem even colder than it was.

I likely only planned to read for a half hour or so, else I would have begun reading elsewhere. Say, the couch, which is where I moved to when the old-fashioned wooden chair began to distract with discomfort. I moved from desk to couch and back again until I finished, likely stopping for tea and treats a few times alongside those shifts in position. When I was on the couch, the furry one would be curled up nearby, close enough for occasional pets but close enough to the edge to assure all concerned of her independence.

That’s where and how I first read Unless.

It’s the same copy that I pulled off the shelf to browse through last weekend. That was a bright January day, but bitterly cold, the roadways and sidewalks bleached by winter, passers-by moving quickly with their heads down. I sat on the edge of the bed, with a cup of jasmine tea at hand, thinking that I was in for a re-read.

It would have been, I think, my fourth reading. But I did not begin to read immediately. First I peeled the layers of my past readings back.

  • Stuck to the inner flap of the cover, a large pale green Post-It with a list of chapter headings noted, starting with Here’s, ending with Not Yet, with Thereof and Despite in between (among others), and, yes, Unless, too.

  • A small piece of paper, torn from one of those pocket-sized, coilbound notebooks, with this quotation: “I want, I want, I want. I don’t actually say these last words; I just bump along on their short, stubbed feet, their little declarative syllables – while buttoning up my coat and making my way home.” It’s written in medium blue ink and when I see the note, I can picture the pen — my favourite at the time — but I haven’t thought of it for years.

  • A three-paragraph-long newspaper article, about the size of a credit card, from October 23, 2002, stating that Carol Shields had been named a companion in the Order of Canada the day before.

  • A half-page newspaper article, folded into quarters, by Heather Mallick, titled “Women Clamouring at the Gates but the Boys Still Won’t Open Up”, which discusses Unless, but also references some of Carol Shields’ early experiences in the literary world, including George Steiner’s announcement that there were no important 20th-century women writers. (Carol Shields challenged him and he allowed that there were a couple of important ones from the 19th.)

  • A sunshine yellow Post-It note on page 224 marking the passage that begins: “Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence.”

Even this tiny bit brings back the wonder of this novel to me, the way that a sentence is most definitely about one thing. And the way that it is, simultaneously, most definitely about something else entirely. The way that it’s satisfying on both counts, but ineffably satisfying in combination, a combination which suggests yet another dimension of questioning, of understanding.

I’d been planning to re-read, but I started to flip around in the novel, surprised not only but what I’d forgotten but by what I remembered. Even before I finished the passage (if you’ve read it, you know the one: you’ve been desperate to have it, but you can barely read it once it’s been offered), all the painful parts of the story came swelling up, as though it was my first reading. (You remember how it felt, when you first realized what it was all about, when it started to fall into place.) All the characters seemed to re-form in my reader’s memory.

Rita’s voice settled into place as I read the first chapter:
“This will be a book about lost children, about goodness, and going home and being happy and trying to keep the poison of the printed page in perspective.”

And Rita Winters’ story is most definitely about those things.

But then at the end, there’s this:
“There you have it: stillness and power, sadness and resignation, contradictions and irrationality. Almost, you might say, the materials of a serious book.”

And Rita Winters’ story is most definitely about those things, too.

Throughout my years of making Desert Island lists, I’ve Not Yet included Unless. (Despite having long considered Carol Shields a favourite author of mine.) Next time, I will. Yet, I won’t be re-reading it for Canada Reads this year. Unless there is a Snow Day tomorrow. Already, there is talk of storm systems.

My Canada Reads Responses (please see CBC Canada Reads for the event’s details):
Terry Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans JAN29 (CBC pitch is here)
Carol Shields’ Unless (above) (CBC pitch is here)
Ami McKay’s The Birth House FEB2 (CBC pitch is here)
Jeff Lemire’s Essex County FEB4 (CBC pitch is here)
Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage FEB6 (CBC pitch is here)