cover image Dressing Up for the Carnival

Dressing Up for the Carnival

Carol Shields. Viking Books, $23.95 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-670-88921-1

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Shields infuses this enigmatic and quirky collection of 22 short stories with ingenious characterizations in heartfelt tales that are mostly character sketches capturing the gestural, kinetic truths about the lives glimpsed here, with happy results. The title story begins, ""All over town people are putting on their costumes"" and catalogues a dozen characters finding themselves surprised by the joy they take in their accessories: two young sisters flaunt their plastic ski passes a month after their vacation; a secretary pushes a unique English pram for her boss's new baby; an old man buys daffodils for his unfriendly daughter-in-law. In a similar fly-on-the-wall style, ""Dying for Love"" peeks in on three women who, unlucky in love, are considering suicide, but each finds ""a handrail of hope to hang onto."" Unforgettable moments include the beginning of ""The Harp,"" when the huge concert instrument falls from an overhead window and injures a passerby; the harpist then visits the victim in the hospital. ""Reportage"" also is memorable for an unlikely happenstance: the discovery of Roman ruins on a Manitoba farm. When tourism supplants wheat farming, it's a boon to everyone except a retired Latin teacher. Many of the stories are light and breezy but not unsatisfying, because the characters are winning even in their mostly cameo-like appearances. Already distinctive, they could evolve into such complex or intriguing Shields characters as The Stone Diaries' Daisy Stone Goodwill or Larry Weller of Larry's Party. Some tales are slighter vignettes, but all share enough whimsy, humor and wisdom to make the collection thoroughly enjoyable and, in many instances, illuminating. (May)