Book Review: Mary Swann

Mary Swann

by Carol Shields

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This engrossing novel unravels the story of an ordinary woman who wrote poems – beautiful lines written on scraps of paper by a farmer’s wife. And it seems that is exactly all she was – a poet.  Yet the four major characters are involved in trying to discover who the “real” Mary Swann was. The actual “story” is more a character study – as a biographer, a retired editor, a librarian and an English professor are revealed to us with regard to their connection to Mary Swann.

These four characters are finely outlined and presented beautifully, without criticism, yet laid bare.   They are all ordinary in their own way. Just as Mary Swann was. One of them (the editor) sums things up nicely: “… the lives of most people are pretty scrappy affairs. And full of secrets and concealments.”

The theme that dominates this book is how people deceive and are deceived, concocting and exaggerating stories in their struggle for recognition and praise, love and respect. In the search for truth they distance themselves ever further from it.  “Forgive me the sin of untruthfulness” says the atheist librarian, Rose. The fact that “ordinariness” can be great is not accepted in our society, so the search for a deeper meaning behind words (or actions) will lead to… what? When meaning is not found, do we invent it? Do we give the words of a poet greater weight and interpret meaningful influences and symbolism?

They all seem aware of their deceit, but are unable to admit it. “I want to live for a time without irony, without rhetoric, in a cool, solid metaphor”, says the professor. When they all come together at the end… well, I must not give away the plot! Let’s just say the ending is triumphant!

This is a great study of human behavior, with a slight wryness, barely susceptible. It is comforting in that it gives ordinariness some kind of significance.


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Carol Shields is one of my favourite writers – I also liked “Unless” and “Various Miracles“. She won the Pulitzer Prize and was short-listed for the Booker Prize with ‘The Stone Diaries’.