Carol Shields's Unless centres upon a moment of racialized and gendered violence that is paradoxically absent from the novel. This pivotal scene of violence, tenuously offered as an explanation for what has happened to the narrator Reta's teenaged daughter, Norah, appears only as a self-consciously mediated and discursively framed event: characters read about it in newspapers or witness it on serendipitously acquired security footage, but the only character who could speak of it directly remains silent. This paper offers a reading of Unless as a novel about the unrepresentability of violence itself. Drawing on Judith Butler’s recent work on the power of discursive frames to shape the recognizability and grievability of the lives of others, I argue that the novel denies readers access to “the truth” of what happened to Norah, instead providing a literary space that reproduces the ethical imperative to relate to the other without indulging in fantasies of comprehension.
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