Monday 20 January 2020

Razor-sharp collection interrogates ownership

Short ­Story: Property: A Collection, Lionel Shriver, HarperCollins, ­paperback, 336 pages, €17.99

US journalist and writer Lionel Shriver. Photo: Joel Sagat/Getty
US journalist and writer Lionel Shriver. Photo: Joel Sagat/Getty
Property: A Collection by Lionel Shriver

Hilary A White

Lionel Shriver made a name for herself with her 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, an unrelenting discussion about the upbringing of a schoolyard shooter. Between it and its hypnotic 2011 celluloid rendering by the great Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, it brought a cold sweat to the brow of a whole generation of expectant parents.

Reading this razor-sharp collection of short stories and novellas, it is comforting to see that Shriver has not mellowed a jot when it comes to throwing cats among pigeons and dragging her angular, messy and alarmingly human characters through the wringer.

As the title indicates, these tales all seem devoted to concepts of ownership and claim, what this represents in various lives and why we place such great store in something that can, as the old saying goes, ultimately end up owning us. Physical property - houses, works of art, a resort being visited in search of something - are only part of the conundrum for Shriver's victims.

The other side of it are the things we can't hold in our hands or walk all over (well, not literally anyway). Spouses, security, standing room in a feud or even our very lives themselves - all might be categorised under Shriver's lacerating pen as things that we like to fool ourselves into thinking are under our domain when in fact they can be yanked from our grasp with unnerving ease.

The protagonist in 'Kilifi Creek' is at that precarious age between youth and adulthood when harsh lessons are required to complete the journey and stop her taking everything for granted. The banality of how this occurs - albeit on a backpacking tour in Nairobi (a former haunt of Shriver's) - is stealthily played out by Shriver. She makes us wait until the closing lines to see if the transaction has been finalised and our heroine has learned her lesson, or if death is in possession of her mortal title deeds, as it were.

There is a tragicomic bent to a few of these tales that makes you feel a little sullied for laughing, as if Shriver is drawing out the lowlife in you. 'Paradise to Perdition', a ditty about a white-collar criminal floundering in new-found tropical luxury, is laced with mischief and a determination to serve up a generally disreputable and hard-to-love protagonist whom we can't help but root for (just). It is quite a skill because you have to characterise with both furious detail and also an eye for the arch.

At times, it can seem Shriver executes this balance effortlessly. 'The Standing Chandelier', the opening novella and something of a cornerstone of the whole collection, is utterly brilliant in that it zeroes in on the mundane with such fierce levels of analysis that it can only seem amazing. In this case, two long-time mixed-tennis partners and best friends are recipients of a life-altering shake-up when one half meets their romantic soulmate. Sitting in the centre of the emotional battleground is the MacGuffin of the title, a peculiar and bemusingly personal art project gifted by the isolated friend to her pal as a wedding gift. Because everything - motives, inclinations, backstories - has been teased out so concisely, every bludgeoning move on the chessboard zings with treachery.

This dynamic - a comfortable duality knocked off balance or awoken from complacency, often permanently so, by the arrival of a third presence - is seen regularly in Property. 'Negative Equity' sees a middle-class couple agree in a perfectly amicable, middle-class way to divorce, only for that agreement to be manacled to the market value of their home. Shriver tends to go for harmony rather than happiness in her endings, even if it leaves a sour taste, but this wraps up with a comparatively perky note, as does 'Royal Male', a mischief-laced doodle about a jaded postman making up his own rules.

You might not say the same about 'Repossession', where Shriver turns to supernatural forces to once again show us a beleaguered character at the mercy of factors beyond her control, while not exactly helping matters themselves.

Between fare such as it and the wrestling match with nature that is 'The Self-Seeding Sycamore', Property mines substantial entertainment and searing wisdom by making its characters push jelly uphill with a fork as only life can make us do. Squirming is rarely this much fun.

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