My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"He has a somewhat romantic view of a human life. Sees it as something with an ... aesthetic shape. A wholeness. Whereas--whereas the lives of most people are pretty scrappy affairs. And full of secrets and concealments." (p. 277-8)This novel looks (quite critically) at the question of biography and literary scholarship. How, and even if, a poet's life influences their work is a central question. The way Shields does this is very clever, she brings us into the minds of several people who are all connected, some more directly than others, with the deceased poet Mary Swann. After episodes from several points of view all the players come together at a symposium on Swann which Shields presents in the form of a screenplay complete with director's notes.
I found three of the four main characters appealing and the fourth one was very unpleasant, but very well drawn. The librarian from Swann's hometown has a secret about how she spends her Friday nights which was perfect for her character (and sounded good to me).
"...I've never been able to see the point of emptying one's mind of thought. Our thoughts are all we have. I love my thoughts, even when they take me up and down sour-smelling byways where I'd rather not venture. Whatever flickers on in my head is mine and I want it, all the blinking impulses and inclinations and connections and weirdness, and especially those bright purple flares that come streaming out of nowhere, announcing that you're at some mystic juncture or turning pint and that you'd better pay attention." (p. 20)I like literary biography, but after reading this novel I think I will view it much more skeptically than before.
This is my thirteenth book for the 9th Canadian Book Challenge.