Review: So Much For That by Lionel Shriver
(Harper Collins €13.99)
Lionel Shriver's best-known novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin was fuelled by two impulses: anger and the dangers of blaming loved ones, when a young boy goes on a school killing spree. Both ideas are re-examined in her latest book, a caustic story of health, wealth and quality of life. Shep Knacker is a typical blue-collar guy, an employee of a hardware shop he once owned, but sold for $1m.
Weary of the rat race, he plans to use this nest egg to move to an African island, hoping to convince his wife Glynis and son to come with him. On the day he makes his surprise announcement, Glynis reveals she is suffering from mesothelioma, a rare cancer.
Shep's retirement idyll is quickly replaced with the reality that his savings will now be spent on trying to keep his wife alive. Their friends Jackson and Carol have two daughters, Flicka who is chronically sick with fundal dysautonomia, and Heather who is given placebo pills so she "doesn't feel neglected". Carol leaves a work-life she loves to take a dreary computer job purely for better healthcare options for Flicka.
Shep's elderly father worked all his life and the government won't stump up for his residential care.
Each chapter begins with Shep's bank balance, which dwindles scarily as Glynis's illness progresses. Glynis's anger is mirrored in Jackson, who rails against everything.
He is also Shriver's mouthpiece to vent about Hurricane Katrina, George W Bush and injustices in the US healthcare system.
Carol refers to Glynis and Flicka, pointing out that "being sick is like being exiled to a foreign country", and Shriver is scathing about the friends who drift away in the face of illness.
"Shep knew all the standard lines. About not wanting to tax her, or bother her or interrupt her sleep . . . They were only being considerate."
Shriver is never sentimental about illness. She guides us through the effect on the body of gruelling treatments and the fury of being sick. The detail is often gruesome, but hugely believable, and proves as authentic as her unlikeable characters. Cancer, medical debt and terminally ill children may put readers off, but this is an unflinching book that ends up as an engrossing page-turner.