Review: Unlit Spaces “a gem of a novel”

by caroline on February 23, 2015

for media


Believable characters
and carefully crafted story
make Unlit Spaces a gem


 Reviewed by Jeanette Rive, Glebe Report, February 2015

Local author Caroline Shepard has written a gem of a novel. She has successfully incorporated all the elements of a good novel – strong characters, vivid imagery, lovely language and a good story. Set in Wood River and Winnipeg, Manitoba in the 1960s, Montreal in the 1970s and northern Ontario in the mid-1980s, Unlit Spaces tells the story of Cailey Donald as she gradually reveals to herself her hidden unlit spaces from her childhood and teenage years. Cailey leaves her home in Wood River to attend high school in Winnipeg and earns her room and board with a well-to-do family by looking after their young son and doing some housework. She goes on to study fine arts in Montreal and embarks on a career as a photographer and visual artist. The book opens during the summer of 1985, when we meet Cailey in cottage country in northern Ontario where she is working on an exhibit of paintings inspired by the early music of Hildegarde von Bingen, but finding her creativity stymied. A visit by her sister Beth, whom she has not seen since leaving Wood River fifteen years earlier, sets in motion her own gradual rediscovery of memories from her childhood that have been buried for many years. Cailey is a bright, independent, thoughtful, wise, artistic woman with a mature insight into many aspects of life. She is quite self-aware but reveals little of herself. Growing up in a family with an alcoholic mother, with its effect on her, her siblings and her father, she has faced many forms of dysfunction and abuse from early on in life. She shows remarkable resilience when faced with situations of abuse of authority, with little apparent permanent effect, but these events shape her future and the direction of her art. Cailey evolves as we see her working on several life-changing projects – photography exhibits showing her passion for social issues, an artistic collaboration with her musician mentor, Jennifer, and a book collaboration with her closest friend, Wendy. She is surrounded by a strong and loyal cohort of friends who sometimes seem to know Cailey better than she knows herself. The love of her life, Steve, weaves in and out of the narrative as Cailey makes a life for herself in Montreal, and as we know from the beginning of the book, he becomes a permanent part of her life. One of the most moving chapters of the book describes Cailey’s solo trip to the Maritimes, encouraged by her friends who had felt she needed a jolt. Akin to a spiritual rite of passage, Cailey rediscovers her urge to draw and begins to face her personal truths. These truths are revealed through the story of the amber pin passed on by her grandmother in a letter full of stories and myths that Cailey is slowly absorbing.

“Cailey has no idea why the amber’s energy is so reassuring to her; it is her Gran’s embrace, her magical way of knowing. It is Cailey’s own longing that now warms her palm, her own longing for ancient passageways to open once again. Taken by the river. A passageway to the unknown. Faith in mystery. Cailey closes her fingers over the amber, picks up her charcoal and begins to draw.”

The dialogue forms the characters in this book. It is beautifully created and brings the characters to life. The story is told from Cailey’s point of view and the scenes described through Cailey’s eyes are written with the right amount of introspection and some self-deprecating humour to make Cailey seem very down-to-earth. Cailey’s thoughts as she is walking in the winter in Montreal are thoughts we might have, the discussions among the students in the 1970s could have been taken from any lively discussions during that period; conversations while driving or sitting in a cafe are realistic and we can hear Gilles Vigneault singing in the background. The few love scenes in the book are tender without being sentimental. I had the pleasure of interviewing Shepard and discussing with her various themes of the book. Shepard grew up in Winnipeg, spent summers in Lac du Bonnet and lived in Montreal during the ’70s, which inspired her detailed descriptions of Winnipeg, Montreal and northern Ontario. I commented that I felt that Cailey and her student friends were almost too mature for their age in their discussions about social and political issues, but Shepard stressed that students were caught up in the politics of the time and spent many hours in heated discussions. Shepard has carried out research into Celtic myth and magic to support the story of Cailey’s grandmother’s pin and the healing powers of amber. Unlit Spaces is a book to be savoured and appreciated. Read it slowly. In re-reading many passages to write this review, I was struck by how well crafted and thoughtfully written this novel is. Initially, I hadn’t been sure I was going to enjoy Unlit Spaces and I ended up loving it. Unlit Spaces is available at Octopus Books, Books on Beechwood and Perfect Books on Elgin. It can also be purchased online in both paper and digital formats from Chapters Indigo, Amazon, Google Books, Barnes and Noble and Friesen Press. Caroline Shepard will also be at a book reading and signing at Octopus Books, 116 Third Avenue, on February 25 at 7 p.m.

Jeanette Rive is an avid reader and along-time supporter and regular contributor to the Glebe Report.

©Glebe Report, February 2015



I’m highly intrigued and very eager to start this book after reading the review, and intend to share the review with many friends and family members. Kudos to Caroline on the publication of her first novel and to Jeanette Rive for her extremely well-written, enticing review!

by Jane Faris on 03/10/2015 at 6:17 pm. #

Thanks for your comment, Jane, and for sharing Jeanette Rive’s review with others. I welcome all critiques of ‘Unlit Spaces’, and hope you’ll let me know your response once you’ve finished it!

by caroline on 03/10/2015 at 9:31 pm. #