By Carol Shields
Open Road Integrated Media, 2013.
431 pages, $20.95
Fans and even those who scoff at literary fiction will enjoy Carol Shields’s Swann —a novel that plays with mystery-genre tropes by transforming them into believable characters. Shields pokes fun at academic interpretations by making us question the motive of four flawed characters. Their lives intertwine —fleetingly and cleverly— because of their obsession with the poems of a deceased, elusive poet from rural Ontario —Mary Swann. The poet’s murky past puzzles them. This book, however, isn’t a mystery about Swann, but rather about how personal histories can vanish and leave the living to scramble for unresolved answers. And scramble they do —Sarah, Morton, Rose, and Frederic. The reader gets to know each one through the minutiae of daily life while they prepare to meet up at an upcoming symposium in Toronto.
The youthful Sarah Maloney, who lucked out when her Ph.D. thesis became a best-selling feminist manifesto, first discovered the poems of Mary Swann. Early on, the professor hits the central question of the story when she wonders, “how did [Mary Swann] do it? Where in those bleak Ontario acres, that littered farmyard, did she find the sparks that converted emblematic substance into rolling poetry?” Even though she is brainy, Sarah seems frazzled and uncertain at times, second-guessing her views of Swann’s true message and identity as often as she flip-flops between her two lovers. Shields conveys this character’s feelings by creating short chapters that jump from situation to situation. Sarah looks up to other Swannians (a term used by Shields as a jab in Academia’s doughy gut) like Morton Jimroy, the esteemed biographer she corresponds with.
Morton, a self-aggrandizing Swann biographer, has fallen for Sarah even though they have not met. He writes to Sarah with feverish enthusiasm and constantly rereads her letters. In his letters to Sarah, he fails to confess his developing aversion to Mary Swann, who seems to him “an impenetrable solipsism.” He tends to belittle not only the poets he writes about, but also most people he meets. Shields uses high language and condescending observations to highlight his sense of superiority. Bit by bit, his paranoid thoughts and his compulsive needs —like chain-smoking and crank-calling his ex-wife— start to eclipse his intellectual expertise. The reader gets sucked into his mindset thanks to his 70-page, chapter-free narrative that sometimes slips into a stream of consciousness.
Next we meet Rose Hindmarch, a library clerk who actually knew Mary Swann. We learn simple details about the poet from this spinster who treats herself to a rye and ginger-ale and the latest spy novel on Friday nights. It is no surprise, then, that the chapters of Rose’s story have straightforward, direct titles like “Drifting Thoughts of Rose Hindmarch” or “Rose Receives a Letter and Also Writes One.” And unlike Sarah and Morton, Rose takes Swann’s poems at face value. Her interpretations are not theoretical nor abstract. She doesn’t have “an extra dimension” or “a third eye”, which some claim to be essential to decipher the meaning of great poems. Shields juxtaposes the over-reaching analyses of learned writers with the thoughts of a layperson who “was sure, a hundred percent sure, of what Mary Swann had been talking about.” Perhaps Rose is actually the one who gets it right. It is no wonder Rose gets on famously with Frederic Cruzzi, the retired editor opposed to seeing Mary Swann’s poetry dissected by academics.
The most lovable character of the lot is 80-year old Frederic. He is sweet with friends but snarky with those who “invite scholarly meddling or whimsical interpretation” of Mary Swann’s poetry. Considering his experience and fondness for recounting his past, it is only natural that his story has the look and feel of a biography. Readers learn about his love for his departed wife, his successes as an editor, and his meeting with Mary Swann. By revealing his past, he also divulges secrets about Mary Swann and her collection of poetry. In fact, we probably learn more details about the appearance and manner of the mysterious poet from Frederic than we do from Sarah, Morton, or Rose.
Shields stuns the audience in the final part titled “Symposium.” She takes the story on an original, unexpected ride when the four characters meet and interact, giving new meaning to the dichotomy between “appearance and reality.” Readers may let out an audible sigh, shake their heads, or be blown away. One thing is certain: they will be surprised by the conclusion’s unconventionality.