I went on vacation and made sure to bring with me plenty to read both print and e, but what do I do? I inspect the little shelf of books when I get to the apartment and choose one there instead. Carol Shields, best known for The Stone Diaries, wrote an academic mystery in which an otherwise completely uninteresting Canadian farm woman who lived a hard life on a poor farm is discovered to be an interesting and fresh voice in poetry. There are four main characters starting with the young feminist, Sarah Maloney, who discovers Mary Swann’s only book in a cabin in Wisconsin. Maloney at this point has successfully promoted Swann’s work and there are enough scholars studying her that a small symposium is scheduled for January. We meet Maloney, Swanns biographer, her friend from the library in the little town she lived nearest to, and her publisher. Then in the last section they all meet at the symposium. But as each of them prepares for this event, the remains of Mary Swann’s life are disappearing one by one.
The copy I read had a naked woman on the cover. God knows why. People wanting a story about a naked woman will be sorely disappointed. Anyone who likes academic stories though should be entertained. Shields explores not just the mystery of who’s stealing the stuff, but the mystery of the human mind, how an ill-schooled farm woman could be a poet and also takes a very sly look at the nature of literary scholarship, the flaws and foibles of scholars and non-scholars when a spotlight is shone on a corner of their lives which had previously held no interest. The temptation to fill in the gaps, to polish a rough edge, to find some better reality is more than some can bear. I really enjoyed this book, though I do for some reason have a liking of academic stories, and was glad I could finish it at the apartment and not have to leave it part way through and order my own copy to finish. I don’t think it fulfills any challenges, but if I’ve forgotten one, I’ll correct this.