A weighty tale exploring obesity and sibling love
HarperCollins, €9.40 paperback
As the writer who burst into our lives and minds with one of the most shatteringly dark novels ever written about parenthood, Lionel Shriver has, rightly, become famous for her peculiarly uncompromising brand of emotional noir. But her subsequent novels, while still sharing that unique, hard-boiled directness, have also been threaded through with a deep humanity, humour and tenderness for which she never quite – not critically anyway – seems to garner sufficient credit.
Maybe it's her own fault. She doesn't make life easy for herself with her choice of subject matter. Mass murder, snooker, the US healthcare system – who but Shriver could pull off a novel about terminal cancer that's angry, yes, but also warmly, movingly upbeat? And now, obesity.
But despite the unpromising theme, this one, like the rest, is really about love, loss, family – ordinary human beings struggling to do the right thing by one another. It's also possibly her very best.
Pandora, the 40-year-old stepmother of two teenagers, runs an "offbeat" novelty doll business that has gone "viral" and made her rich and a bit famous. (It's a real tribute to Shriver's wit and imagination that not only are the details of the hilariously brilliant Baby Monotonous convincing, but you feel she should rush to patent it before someone else does.)
Pandora's husband, Fletcher, meanwhile, is a maker of "high-end custom furniture" that no one wants to buy. "Consumed with control", he rides his bicycle for hours each day and follows a diet so "stringent" that simply being "in his physical presence" makes Pandora feel "chided".
Into this already faintly precarious family dynamic comes Pandora's older brother Edison, a once hip and sexy jazz musician who, to Pandora's "dizzying sorrow" (especially when she fails to recognise him at the airport) now weighs in at 386lb (27.5 stone).
Edison is between gigs. But as his visit gradually extends from weeks into months, a dismayed Pandora watches him eat his way through almost everything in sight. "It pained me how pleasureless it could only have been to binge on wheatgerm," she observes.
Then come two stark moments of truth. First, Edison breaks Fletcher's most precious (albeit unusable) piece of furniture – a sin for which the latter cannot muster forgiveness.
Next, in a scene that may be one of the most unbearably and unsparingly visceral I've encountered in a work of fiction, he evacuates his bowels for the first time in too long. The blockage in the family toilet is inevitable.
As Pandora rushes to sort him – and the mess – out, he confesses everything. There are no gigs, no career, nothing. If left to his own devices, he will almost certainly eat himself to death: "slow-motion-suicide-by-pie". This is rock bottom. And Pandora – the emotional core of this novel with her good-hearted sense of responsibility to those she loves – decides to stage the biggest and most dramatic intervention possible.
She will leave her family and take Edison off to a rented apartment and live with him for as long as it takes to get him (and herself, too, since she realises that she can afford to lose a number of middle-aged pounds) back to the old weight.
Or, as her appalled husband puts it: "You're moving in with your brother, so you can read each other the nutritional label on the cottage cheese."
He has a point. Still, what follows is one of the most suspenseful and engaging accounts of a diet that I can imagine reading. But then again, this is a novel about so much more than weight-watching. It's about the whole queasy lexicon of addiction – as well as the way one addiction is almost always (and, maybe, inevitably) replaced by another.
"He's not in control of himself," a friend pithily remarks of Edison, "he's only in control of the control. Once the controls are lifted, he's in control of nothing."
Just as interestingly, it's a novel about sibling and familial responsibility, and the extent to which it's possible, ethical, realistic or even desirable, to intervene. Pandora admits that she finds "blood relationships rather frightening" since there "is no line in the sand, no natural limit to what these people can reasonably expect of you".
As Pandora and Edison embark on their terrifyingly strict liquid diet, and as – touchingly and literally – a long-ago version of Edison starts to reappear so, too, the experiment begins to take its toll on the whole family. (Maybe their names aren't so coincidental either: two famous discoverers whose 'inventions' had both good and bad consequences.)
Meanwhile, along the way, there is so much to revel in and enjoy. There's Shriver's intensely drawn portrait of a modern family: a step-relationship evoked with wonderfully matter-of-fact tenderness and unsentimental realism. All her characters feel vibrant, witty and composed, but also secretly, achingly vulnerable.
You can absolutely imagine and believe in the slim, dashingly charismatic former Edison lurking within that lumbering frame. And there's the all-too-recognisable preposterousness of a man like Fletcher, with his "beige" salads and the self-righteous "pock-pock" as he perpetually flosses his teeth.
And then there's the food – or lack of it. Shriver is brilliant on the novel shock that is hunger, on how it feels to lose the crucial sense of punctuation (and motivation) that mealtimes give you. With honesty, precision and humour, she conveys all the boredom and exhilaration of weight loss, along with its tendency to threaten the people around you.
Most of all, though, there's her glorious, fearless, almost fanatically hard-working prose. Nothing here feels half-hearted or accidental – the rhythm and weight and heft of each sentence is exactly judged. There's her trademark (and extremely winning) lack of phoneyness, her blatant lack of apology.
But there's poetry, too: she relishes the precise flavour and power of one word next to another, and the result is writing of a beauty and character that is lamentably missing from so much of the fuzzy-lazy meandering that these days passes for literary fiction.
Shriver has made no secret of the fact that, though a work of fiction, this novel was inspired by her own brother and his obesity-linked death.
This may account for the raw sense of urgency and risk that seems to run through it. But it's not the only reason why, pages from the end, you catch yourself with a big, uneasy lump in your throat, unable to guess where – and how far – she's prepared to go with this.
The novel's ending is a dark, daring, heart-stopping shock, and so it should be. There are no answers, Shriver says. All we can do is learn to live with the questions. I cannot imagine those questions being asked more forcefully, passionately, intelligently or kindly than they are in this book.
Julie Myerson's new novel is The Quickening (Hammer).