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Lionel Shriver's scalpel-sharp pen hilariously cuts through 'woke' critics

Fiction: The Motion of the Body Through Space

Lionel Shriver

Borough Press, €17.99

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US journalist and writer Lionel Shriver. Photo: Joel Sagat/Getty

US journalist and writer Lionel Shriver. Photo: Joel Sagat/Getty

AFP/Getty Images

The Motion of Body Through Space

The Motion of Body Through Space

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US journalist and writer Lionel Shriver. Photo: Joel Sagat/Getty

Lionel Shriver has become more famous for being a provocative contrarian than for her novels and in her latest book she seems to have stored up all accusations against her and spewed her defences - every one of them - out on to the page. The result is a ripping satire, extremely funny in parts, and regardless of her politics (she is, for instance, pro-Brexit) she writes with a surgically sharp pen.

Her protagonist, Serenata Terpsichore (surname rhymes with chicory) is in her early sixties, has exercised vigorously all of her adult life and now finds herself in need of a double knee replacement. Her work as a voice-over artist and audiobook reader is drying up, not least because her considerable talent for minority accents is now seen as 'cultural appropriation'.

While Serenata's life appears to be closing down, her recently retired husband's life is just getting going. Remington Alabaster has been forced to retire early as a result of an incident with his newly appointed boss - a very young, unqualified, patently nasty woman with way too many axes to grind - and at the age of 64, Remington has decided he wants to run a marathon. He's never shared his wife's enthusiasm for physical exercise before now and Serenata is more than a little disgruntled to find his new-found fitness regime coincides with her new-found, enforced, sedentary lifestyle.

The biscuit is well and truly taken, however, when Remington joins the local MettleMan group in training for a triathlon, headed up by the grotesquely stupid Bambi Buffer, whose exorbitant personal training fees put the squeeze on the couple's rapidly depleting bank account.

Three near-death experiences do nothing to quench Remy's thirst to be the best he can be and Serenata can do nothing but watch from the sidelines in an obviously fake attempt to seem supportive. He has become a fanatic in acid-coloured lycra.

There are other fanatics in Serenata's life, too. Her grown-up daughter is a Jesus freak with a huge troupe of kids under 12 and a reliance on social security. Only recently back in touch with her parents, Valeria has convinced herself that she had a terrible childhood, although her drug-dealing brother Deacon has no such recollections. Both children sashay in and out of the story and, typically, it is the ne'er-do-well Deacon who shows himself to have some degree of sanity.

Serenata's knees have become a matter for surgery sooner than she thought they would, and here Shriver handles the vulnerability of her character with surprising tenderness. A lifelong athlete (like Shriver herself), Serenata is struggling with the inevitability of going gently into that good night. But with her husband facing down that very same struggle by joining the lycra brigade, she finds herself essentially alone. Her best friend of over 40 years has been "kidnapped". If the woman who had kidnapped him (Bambi Buffer) was not so crass, Serenata might be more graciously accepting of her lot.

Behind Shriver's obvious nose-thumbing at her "woke" critics, she has some astute observations on what she perceives as a society in chaos. "In the febrile climate of the time, the only evidence required to certify you as a racist was that someone called you one". (Remington is not a racist.) On language, she writes: " 'Narrative' had replaced 'story', as 'core' had replaced 'torso', as the coyly understated 'troubling' […] had replaced 'catastrophically f*cking horrible'."

There are descents into blatant caricature - Bambi Buffer's not the only one - that weaken Shriver's case somewhat. But it's still a smart, entertaining novel.

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