Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 384 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
In Lionel Shriver’s last novel, So Much For That, she poked a big fat stick at the American healthcare system and highlighted all the things that were wrong with it. In her latest book, Big Brother, she picks up another stick, but this time she pokes it at the American diet to show how obesity — and an unhealthy obsession with food — can ruin lives.
Big, fat brother
The story is narrated by forty-something Pandora, a successful entrepreneur, who is married with two step-children. When she goes to the airport to collect Edison, her brother, a famous jazz musician whom she has not seen for more than four years, she does not recognise him because he’s packed on so much weight.
During his visit it becomes increasingly clear that Edison has a real problem with food — but no one is prepared to tackle him about the subject, not even Pandora’s health-obsessed, cycling-freak of a husband, Fletcher, who can’t stand watching the man stuff his face with food at every opportunity.
Eventually, things come to a head as Edison outstays his welcome and breaks a precious piece of furniture — by sitting on it. That’s when Pandora puts her own marriage on the line by offering to help her big — in all senses of the word — brother lose weight by setting him up in his own cottage nearby, living with him and managing his food and fitness regime 24/7 as a kind of personal trainer cum food Nazi. But the question is: can he shift all 223 pounds in a year?
Unsurprisingly for a Lionel Shriver novel, Big Brother is an issues-based story. Not only does it highlight the health problems — diabetes, stroke, fluid retention and so on — associated with obesity, but it explores the social and psychological problems arising from being seriously overweight — and it does so in an intelligent, thought-provoking and informed way.
And while the characters are wonderfully realised — Edison is painfully egotistical, Pandora is convincingly torn between her brother and her own family, Fletcher is annoying in a morally smug “I only eat brown rice and broccoli” kind of way — there’s not much light relief (sorry, another pun) in this book. I found myself becoming weighed (oops) down by the unrelenting nature of it all. But perhaps that’s a strength too, because Shriver explores the issue from all possible angles, providing plenty of food for thought (oops, I did it again).
At its most basic level, Big Brother is a story about sibling love — and rivalry — told in Shriver’s typically searing take-no-prisoners style. It’s filled with tension, brims with anger and packs a powerful punch — although the twist at the end makes it feel less like a punch and more like a raspberry being blown in your face. Still, if you’re looking for something meaty to get your teeth into… I’ll stop now, shall I?