Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields

This post was first published by Suite101.

Carol Shields was a writer unafraid to use the ordinary, domestic lives of women as her recurring subject. Her novels are full of warmth, humour and poetry – they capture the complexity of the female mind with great honesty and skill. Small Ceremonies is another example of Shields’s ability to get deep inside the heads of her characters, and to communicate with her readers the minutiae of experience.

Judith Gill is a biographer. She is also a mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend. She is fascinated and perplexed by the people that surround her – not only by the subjects of her biographies, but by her friends, her children, and even her husband. “I am watching”, she recognises. “My own life will never be enough for me.” Judith creates identities for the family they swap houses with during a year in England; she wonders who it is her daughter reminds her of; she finds wool in her husband’s desk drawer, and feels as though he has become a stranger. Judith spends the majority of the novel trying to figure people out, write them down. In the end, however, she realises that it is in fact impossible, and unnecessary – “people must be preserved with their mysteries intact”.

Small Ceremonies is a book of ideas – it doesn’t follow the traditional narrative structure of beginning, middle, and end. There are storylines that flow throughout the novel; that are played out and resolved in some way. But they are details, small incidents in a life – “it is the arrangement of events which makes the stories”, Judith notes. There is a great sense of this novel as a small slice of Judith Gill’s life – like a single photograph pulled from a large album. The novel spans nine months and three seasons – Fall, Winter and Spring – of Judith’s life. But the moments and details contained in that time-span that the novel documents speak volumes about who Judith is – about her passions, her obsessions, and her fears. The novel’s deeply interior style also contributes greatly to this – we are constantly caught up in the feelings, dreams, memories and imagination of Judith Gill; we cannot help but feel that we know her. But the novel also recognises that there is much more to this woman – to any person – than a novel can ever sum up. People are constantly changing, mysteries to themselves as well as to the people around them. This is what makes people so fascinating – it is why Judith Gill writes biographies. It is also why Carol Shields wrote novels, and it is why we continue to read them.

Carol Shields was born in Chicago, and later moved to Canada where she died in 2003. Her novel The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995, and Small Ceremonies won the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for Fiction. Small Ceremonies is published by Penguin Books.

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