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December 28, 2007

Random Illuminations by Eleanor Wachtel

“… I think the more we know about a writer, the more we understood how the novel was put together and why and what it means. And maybe we don’t need to know this. Maybe we don’t need to know anything about the writer. Maybe it’s better for us to enter blindly into the reading of novels, but, of course, I’ve I am always curious about the person behind the voice, behind the writing hand”– Carol Shields, “A Gentle Satirist”

The more about I read about Carol Shields, particularly in her own words, it is clear to me why her friends have been moved to honour her: Blanche Howard’s Memoir of Friendship (which was how I spent the end of June) and now Eleanor Wachtel’s Random Illuminations. Shields’s mutual engagements with fiction and the world (both absolutely intertwined) were so deeply considered, original and brave, that her death left a gaping hole, and not only for those who knew her. Carol Shields’s own generosity of spirit– that which gave her her talent for friendship in particular– meant that her loss would be exponential.

There are some people who’ve never read Carol Shields, which I find baffling. But maybe you have to have read her to know what you aren’t missing. I think, however, that anyone who’s never read her might be surprised by what they find here, by the vastness of her thought, her wisdom, her curiosity, her insight, her embrace of the actual world. In many ways she was a philosopher, which might sound hyperbolic, but this was a woman who was asking singular questions of humanity in even the most ordinary letters to her friends. (Who never actually seemed to write an ordinary letter come to think of it.) Who dared to declare issues of womanhood and motherhood issues of personhood after all, the very fundamentals of personhood: how are we meant to be?

Eleanor Wachtel wrote her essay “Scrapbook of Carol” after Shields’s death for the Canadian journal A Room of One’s Own, and that essay opens Random Illuminations, Wachtel’s collection of letters from and interviews with Shields, who was a friend. This collection reads much like a scrapbook also, chronological, layered, touching back upon the same ideas and taking stock of their development. Like everything Shields touched, it seems, the book is most vibrant and full of joy. Fascinating for writers and readers alike, and I mean readers in general too. How terrible, it underlines the loss of Shields, but also suggests that she chose friends as generous as she was, who are now so willing to share her with the world.

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