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Mary Swann by Carol Shields

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August 2011 Guest Editor Deborah Lawrenson on Carol Shields...

Pulitzer prizewinner Shields is such a fine writer. Her novels are intelligent and engaging, even when the subject matter is quiet. Mary Swann is my favourite: a story of a Canadian housewife who wrote poetry but is murdered by her husband before she is published. It’s a literary quest, on one level, as four diverse people who knew her, or know her work, try to unravel the secrets of her writing life.

If you like Carol Shields you might also like to read books by Annie Proulx and Louise Erdrich.


Mary Swann by Carol Shields

Mary Swann, a latter-day Emily Dickinson, submitted a paper bag of poems to newspaper editor Frederic Cruzzi mere hours before her husband hacked her to pieces. How could someone who led such a dull, sheltered life produce these works of genius? Four very different people search for the elusive answer.


'One of the best novels I have read this year. It's deft, funny, poignant, surprising and beautifully shaped.' Margaret Atwood

'Quite excellent. Hers is a name to set beside those of Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro.'
Anita Brookner, Spectator

'A funny, compassionate, open-handed novel. A worthy British debut from a fine Canadian author.'
Glasgow Herald

'Formally ingenious and inventive, strikingly evocative of place, of character, of the world of things, capable of both comedy and tenderness, and above all beautifully written.'

'Clearly a work of an experienced and skilful writer. This is not only a first-rate read, it is also sophisticated and ingeniously crafted.'

'A (fictional) Canadian farmer's wife who writes poetry is murdered. But her life and her work are seen completely differently by the four people whose points of view feature here. This is a breathtaking academic detective story that also explores the distortions of biography and memory.' (Kirkus UK)

About the Author

Carol Shields was born and grew up in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. She was the third child of a sweet-factory manager and a schoolteacher.

After Hanover College, Indiana, she won a place on an exchange programme with Exeter University. There she found a more academic atmosphere, in which she thrived, and a Canadian engineering graduate student, whom she subsequently married.

Over the next ten years or so she moved around Canada with her husband, had five children, came back to England (Manchester) for three years, and wrote the occasional short story. Age twenty-nine, she wrote seven poems for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Young Writers' Competition – and won. There followed a period of poetry writing, a master's programme in English at the University of Ottawa, a thesis on Susanna Moodie, a 19th-century Canadian fiction writer and two books of poetry, Others and Intersect. The week she turned forty her first novel Small Ceremonies, was published, her thesis was accepted for publication, and she was about to leave for a year in France during her husband's sabbatical. There she immediately started her second novel, The Box Garden.

She published two collections of short stories as well as six novels. Mary Swann was the first to be published in the UK in 1990, followed by Happenstance, which combined two earlier novels published separately, in 1991 and The Republic of Love in 1992. The Stone Diaries was published in August 1993, and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It is now a bestselling paperback, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in April 1995. Various Miracles, a collection of short stories, was published to critical rapture in November 1994, and her first two novels, Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, saw their first UK publication in February and June 1995 respectively.

In August 1997 her novel Larry's Party was published by Fourth Estate, and went on to win the UK's coveted Orange Prize for Women's Fiction in May 1998. A new collection of short fiction, Dressing Up for the Carnival, was published in February 2000. Her last novel, Unless, was published in the UK in 2002 by Fourth Estate and went on to be shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize.

Carol Shields passed away in July 2003.

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Book Info

Publication date

30th November 1999


Carol Shields

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