Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Collins, Lionel Shriver, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Big Brother’ by Lionel Shriver


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?

Issues-based novel

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?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Collins, Lionel Shriver, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘So Much For That’ by Lionel Shriver


Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 464 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Author Lionel Shriver never shies away from exploring big moral questions in her writing. In her Orange Prize-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) she examined the nature versus nurture debate and posed one of the most alarming questions it is possible to pose: should a mother be blamed if her son murders his fellow classmates?

In The Post-Birthday World (2007) she looked at domestic security versus a life of adventure, and asked whether it was possible to lead a happier life by choosing passion over love.

In So Much For That, her latest novel due for UK release next week, she asks the biggest question of them all: how much money is one life worth? If you had the chance to lead a different, more fulfilling, life, even if it meant you wouldn’t earn much money, would you take it? Or, to put it more bluntly, if you were to get sick, how much would you be prepared to pay for medical treatment, even if you weren’t quite sure the medical treatment would work?

The story begins with Shepherd Knacker, a hardworking family man, announcing that he has an adventure in store for Glynis, his wife of 26 years, and Zach, his 16-year-old son. With almost a million dollars in his bank account (created by selling his handyman business and his house several years earlier), he’s just bought them all one-way air tickets to a tropical island off the coast of Africa. Here, free from the trappings of modern day America, the family will live in relative comfort — and obscurity — for the rest of their lives.

But sadly, this life-long dream cannot be fulfilled. Glynis has an announcement of her own: she has an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer.

The book, which is set largely in New York in 2005, follows the ups and downs of Glynis’ treatment and the ensuing outfall amongst family and friends, while Shep’s million dollar bank account shrinks to the point of no return. But Shriver is clever, and weaves two other stories, which also explore the moral question of a life’s worth, into the narrative — and to hammer the point home even more heavily, she has the Terry Schiavo case, in which lawyers argue whether Ms Schiavo, who lies in a persistent vegetative state, should be disconnected from her life support system, playing out in the background.

The first strand involves Shep’s best friend, Jackson, a man who rails against big government and spends most of his time ranting and raving about all the taxes he has to pay. Happily married to Carol, he has two children: Flicka, a feisty intelligent teenager, who was born with a rare genetic disorder (familial dysautonomia) which requires constant medical attention, and a younger daughter, Heather, who is put on a sugar-based placebo in order to “not feel left out”. As if his coping with his daughter’s illness is not enough, midway through the story, Jackson himself, falls prey to a botched operation for which he must pay in more ways than one.

The second strand involves the care of Shep’s elderly father, who is no longer able to look after himself. Despite the fact he’s lead a productive life, paid his taxes and owns his own home, the government won’t foot the bill for his assisted care. It is up to Shep to fund the shortfall. Given he’s also paying for his wife’s cancer treatment, his cash-strapped sister’s fuel bills and his adult daughter’s rent, is it any wonder he’s hurtling towards bankruptcy?

This might all sound like depressing stuff. And you’d be forgiven for thinking the book is just a thinly veiled excuse for Shriver to have a pop at the American medical and taxation system. But to interpret So Much For That as mere polemic is to miss the point. Yes, there are times when the dialogue reads like political venting, but there’s a bigger picture to focus on here (it’s important to note that the novel is set before the credit crunch, Obama’s presidency and his current health care bill reforms).

Just as Helen Garner’s Spare Room looked at the impact of cancer on a friendship, So Much For That looks at cancer’s impact on a marriage. And it examines how the trappings of modern life, with its heavy emphasis on consumerism and property ownership, counts for almost nothing when your health — and your life — is at stake.

I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book. I lived with these characters for an entire weekend (the book arrived on a Saturday morning and by the Sunday night I had finished it) and felt like I’d gone on a huge, emotional roller-coaster that lasted almost 48 hours. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me angry.

None of the characters are particularly likable: Glynis is spiky, bad-tempered and infuriatingly bad-mannered throughout; Jackson rants too much; Flicka is irritatingly obnoxious; and Shep, while sympathetically drawn, lets everyone treat him life a doormat and never calls anyone on their shit. But my god, they feel like real flesh-and-blood people, the kind who you probably work with or live next door to. Yes, they make mistakes, yes, they make morally dubious decisions, and yes, they fail to take responsibility for much of their actions. But I enjoyed being in their company and was sad when it all came to an end. Mind you, the book’s got a terrific conclusion that poses an entirely new set of moral questions. But I guess it wouldn’t be a Shriver novel without being fierce and intelligent, and fiercely intelligent all at the same time.

I know it probably seems uncanny to read such a brilliant novel so soon after Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, but Shriver’s So Much For That deserves just as much attention — and acclaim.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Harper Collins, Lionel Shriver, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Post-Birthday World’ by Lionel Shriver


Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 600 pages; 2007.

In Lionel Shriver‘s astonishingly profound novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the American-born London-based author explored the notion of nature versus nurture. It divided readers across the world and became the quintessential book group book, if only because its content stimulated so much discussion. If a student went on a killing spree, was the mother to blame? Or had he simply been born evil?

In her long-awaited follow-up, The Post-Birthday World, Shriver treads less controversial ground but doesn’t shy away from exploring a theme that is likely to generate a similar amount of discussion: is life pre-ordained or do we need to take responsibility for our actions? Is sex or companionship more important in a relationship? And is there such a thing as a perfect partner?

In this accomplished and incredibly well plotted novel we meet Irina McGovern, a children’s book illustrator, who is an expat American living in South London. Every July 6 Irina and her long-term partner, Lawrence, meet an acquaintance, Ramsey Acton, who is a rich and famous snooker player, to celebrate his birthday. It is a once-a-year rendezvous that Irina usually tries to wriggle out of. The one year that Lawrence can’t make it due to a business trip, Irina is left to entertain Ramsey on her own. It is on this particular evening that Irina’s comfortable, if occasionally dull life, cleaves in two.

And this is where Shriver has fun exploring the what ifs. What if Irina kisses Ramsey on this night? And what if she decides to resist temptation?

The Post-Birthday World charts Irina’s life using a parallel universe structure, one in which she chooses to run off with the wild and impetuous Ramsey and the other in which she stays with her dependable, intellectual partner Lawrence. These two worlds are so diametrically opposed — the seedy on-the-road life of the professional snooker player and the closeted, safe and cerebral existence of an academic — that Irina’s decision in anything but a light one. Does she settle for Lawrence’s seeming unwillingness to experiment in bed (he won’t even kiss her) or does she seek the sexual thrills that Ramsey offers? Does she maintain the cosy homelife she shares with Lawrence — who won’t marry her —  or does she embark on a steamy affair that may ultimately end in wedlock?

Irina’s two lives are told in alternate chapters. I initially found this confusing, but once I understood the structure of the book I found that it lent each story an extra depth. This is because much of the dialogue in each “universe” is repeated, although the words don’t necessarily fall out of the same mouths. I can only imagine how much hard work went into plotting and planning this extraordinary novel.

As ever Shriver’s prose is forthright and incisive. The characterisation is superb. Irina is especially compelling, if only because she seems very human — and self-absorbed — and is never quite sure whether she should follow her head or follow her heart.

I loved the setting. The London described in these pages is one I know well (I work in South London), so I had fun spotting the familiar landmarks. And Shriver’s descriptions of snooker, a sport that is peculiarly English, are spot-on. It was a brave decision for an American to write about it, but she handles it with aplomb, even if some of the passages explaining the sport’s history seemed a little laboured.

Unfortunately, Ramsey’s dialect, a kind of contrived Cockney-speak, doesn’t always ring true — he uses words that don’t fit, such as gobshite (which is Irish) and pet (which is from the North) — that suggest Shriver, an American, hasn’t come to terms with native English, or is playing a much cleverer game in which Ramsey is not all that he appears to be. Either way, I found his idiosyncratic speech grated throughout much of the book.

Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed The Post-Birthday World, ripping through its 600 weighty pages in a little under two weeks. It’s a fascinating account of one woman’s personal growth as she learns that both men in her life are good people with character flaws and that no matter who you choose there will always be ups and downs. The ultimate moral of this book is that life is what you make of it. No more, no less.

PS> If you want to know more about snooker, can I suggest you read The Hurricane: The Turbulent Life and Times of Alex Higgins by Bill Burrows. It provides a fascinating glimpse into one of the sport’s most controversial characters.