Swann by Carol Shields, 397 pages
Canadian Book Challenge 5
This novel is sometimes called Swann: A Literary Mystery, but as a reader of mystery books, I would say that title is a bit of a stretch for this book. There is a slight mystery, but the main one, Who was Mary Swann? is more of philosophical question. The end result is there really wasn't much to learn about Mary Swann and I would rank this near the bottom of Shields' books so far in my reading adventure.
Four main characters - a feminist literary critic, the poet's biographer, a small-town librarian, and a crusty, brilliant newspaper editor each get a section, giving the reader their own background, as well as fleshing out the character of Mary Swann. Well, it tries to, but there is precious little information about the uneducated farm woman whose poetry is 'discovered' after her brutal murder. I felt that Shields was commenting on the world of literary scholarship, as so many people were commenting and making conclusions about Swann that went far beyond what Swann herself would have meant or understood. It was often my view of poetry while I was in school - who am I (or my teacher) to say what the theme or symbols meant? Because the four characters have their own motives for what they say about Swann, what is concluded has to be taken with a grain of salt, especially as we get to see them all change or omit facts that further their opinions. Which now makes everything I read suspect! Who recorded this information, and why?
The final section, where all the main characters meet at the Swann Symposium, is written as a screenplay, after stating that all the characters were fictional. This threw me a little bit - how can the characters in the novel be described as fictional? What then is the next part? Anyway, the slight mystery of who is taking the Swann artifacts is explored in this section, and the characters get to interact. Throughout it all, Shields characteristic writing of details and characters development is here. I just kept hoping there would be a little more plot to the story. If I was more of a literaty scholar or historian, I would have enjoyed it more.