So much good women’s fiction from 1977, from Margaret Atwood’s Dancing Girls to Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

But I reread Carol Shields’ Unless last year and I wanted to reread another of hers.

Enter, The Box Garden.

A book I first read twenty years after its original publication. And that was twenty-one years ago.

Which is a good number of years.

Enough that I wondered whether it would hold up.

It does.

Carol Shields’ first two novels consider two siblings: Charleen and Judith. Just Like Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka stories about sisters Rachel and Stacey (A Jest of God and The Fire-Dwellers).

In The Box Garden, Charleen Forrest (cue jokes about forests and trees and perspective) is travelling to Toronto to attend a wedding, her septuagenarian mother’s wedding. (Judith’s mother, too: Judith, from Small Ceremonies.)

The event prompts Charleen to think about her failed marriage and fledgling relationship with Eugene.

And, once she returns to her childhood home, to think about her parents’ relationship too, and about how their expectations of marriage and home life have influenced her own expectations.

It’s all very civilized. But also very uncomfortable. Restrained and awkward. A quiet and immersive tension.

“For an obsession such as the one which ruled my mother’s life could only have existed to fill a terrible hurting void; it is the void one must not mention, for, who knows, it may still exist just below the uneasy quaking surface. Quicksand. So easy to get sucked under. Better to walk carefully, to say nothing.”

Charleen is so caught in this net of half-living, that even the smallest motions create waves. And she has already dealt a serious blow to the equilibrium in bringing Eugene with her on the trip.

The fact that she did not tell her mother in advance reveals just how much goes unsaid in this family. And not just what is unsaid. But what one must preserve in unsaid-ness.

There really is no question of breaking a silence. Simply acknowledging the silence is too risky. Perimeters are guarded and buffered.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that there is no question of Charleen and Eugene sharing a room. That would not do.

It’s not that they aren’t married (although that’s a situation better preserved in silence as well).

No, it’s not that. Because Charleen’s sister, Judith, and her husband, Martin, sleep in separate rooms too.

That’s right: two grown men in their forties are bunking in together, to avoid upsetting their partners’ mother.

(And, I’m sorry, Charleen, because I know your feelings were hurt when Martin laughed, but when you thought his idea of altering the sleeping arrangements during the night was an invitation to a threesome, rather than partners reuniting, well, you had me laughing out loud too. It still makes me giggle, days later.)

The borders are carefully drawn and maintained. Even in conversation? Especially in conversation. “We talk in careful, mutually drawn circles.”

But the girls are not unsympathetic, not unaware. They understand that their mother’s world changed too quickly for her, that remaining motionless was her coping mechanism. Their silences transformed into borders which press their relationships into thin but unbroken lines.

“Our mother alone had been cursed by strange daughters. Judith with her boisterous disturbing honesty, bookish and careless, and I with my now fatherless child, my unprecedented divorce, my books of poetry. The neighbours’ children hadn’t dismayed and defeated and failed their mothers.”

But the source of dismay and defeat remains a blur. One which has expanded to include the younger women as well. It seeps into the cracks, threatens to overwhelm.

“Happiness. Such a word, such a crude balloon of a word, such a flapping, stretched, unsightly female bladder of a word, how worn, how slack, how almost empty.”

There are salves, however. Later relationships offer some hope and promise (the sisters’ observations of their mother’s fiancee bears this out too). And, for Charleen, there is respite in writing poetry:

“…I discovered that I could bury in my writing the greater part of my pain and humiliation. The usefulness of poetry was revealed to me; all those poets had been telling the truth after all; anguish could be scooped up and dealt with.”

Readers view Charleen as a worker and a writer, a mother and a daughter, a lover and a traveller, a sister and a companion, so although The Box Garden is set in another time, the themes are timeless.

Thanks to Karen and Simon for hosting this event: a good reading year!