Book review: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver. Picture: Getty
Lionel Shriver. Picture: Getty
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Lionel Shriver spoils her deeply personal tale of sibling struggle with fake accents and make-believe, writes Hannah McGill

Big Brother - Lionel Shriver

HarperCollins, £16.99

ONE might be forgiven for assuming at a glance that the always issue-aware author of We Need to Talk About Kevin – she’s tackled high school massacres and health-care costs, terrorism and overpopulation, male/female competition and marital infidelity – was here taking on totalitarian government or the surveillance society. In fact, her choice of title is even more literal than that: the book is about having an obese sibling. Sadly, Shriver knows whereof she speaks, having lost her own brother to obesity-related illness four years ago.

This can’t exactly be a consolation to her, but it’s noticeable that painful proximity to her subject matter has lent greater emotional insight to a writer who has historically worked more from the head than the heart. We Need To Talk About Kevin’s titular killer, for instance, never seemed for a moment like a real child, nor his mother Eva like a woman who had given birth to one; those limitations fixed that novel as fun Grand Guignol rather than serious psychological study, and were widely linked to the fact that Shriver had no kids herself. That she has experience of a tragic sibling is both positive and negative for the book.

The central relationship between Pandora Halfdanarson, a business tycoon married to an uptight health freak, and her charismatic but dramatically gone-to-seed musician brother Edison Apaloosa is nicely observed. The sibling relationship is a broad church, and Shriver is insightful about many of its extremes, from near-estrangement, either affectionate or contemptuous, to impenetrable intimacy and even illicit sexual undercurrents. Pandora is a fun, plausible addition to Shriver’s stable of brittle, sarky, high-achieving, generally Shriver-esque protagonists; and Edison, in his hipster looseness, egomania and self-loathing, convinces too. Up to a point. Both characters also struggle under the burden of the sort of misjudged detail which often unbalances Shriver’s narratives. At one point, for no reason at all and with no result but a big cringe, she includes an entire, very long lyric for the fictional theme song of the fictional TV sitcom for which Pandora and Edison’s actor father found fame in the 1970s.

Character names are similarly elaborate and attention-seeking: Shriver loves unorthodox names, and here even incidental characters go by a mouthful of showy syllables, so that after a while your brain starts to ache a bit from people being called Maple and Tanner and Fletcher and Travis and Floy. Pandora’s work is another source of weirdness: her company, called Baby Monotonous (stretch), makes one-off, customised dolls (big stretch) which speak in long, cumbersome recorded messages (bigger stretch), an endeavour for which she has found mainstream fame and success (huge stretch).

Even Shriver doesn’t seem that convinced by Pandora’s vocation, seeming to forget at points that the woman she has created is meant to be gifted enough to have made a career of craft: Pandora notes at one point that she’s never had artistic skills, and that Edison represents her one creative ­triumph.

Her brother’s burden, meanwhile, is a verbal one. It’s odd, given how poorly Shriver has worked with accents before (her novel The Post-Birthday World was roundly and justly mocked for the worst pseudo-Cockney since Dick Van Dyke) that she should repeat her mistake, but Edison’s dialogue all comes mired in hackneyed jazz-speak that makes him several degrees harder to believe in. (The fact that Shriver pre-empts criticism here by having the other characters mock his “patois” doesn’t make it any less jarring.)

Despite these excesses, the book is pacy and enjoyable in its first section. It’s when Shriver turns it into a structural experiment that it gets really indigestible. Shriver has acknowledged in interviews that she undertook the story of Pandora’s attempted salvation of Edison in order to explore what might have happened had she dropped everything in her own brother’s cause. This information makes for a poignant biographical sidebar, but it’s to the detriment of the novel. Shriver gives us an improbable plot development; has us stick with it for almost half of the book, and then whips round right at the end to pull apart its credibility and basically tell us that we were naïve to have gone with it. To which the only response is: well, you’re the novelist, I’m the reader; even if I found what was happening a bit unconvincing, what the hell was I meant to do except think you were a bad writer? What have you proved exactly?

Shriver, of course, isn’t the first author to deploy an unreliable first-person narrator – indeed, she’s done it before herself, most famously in We Need to Talk About Kevin. But introducing ambiguity ­regarding the narrator’s position on the story is different from presenting a fully worked out scenario over hundreds of pages and then revealing it to have been a mirage. This is a pointless misdirection of the reader’s trust – one that feels not so much clever as ­insulting.

And it’s a shame, because in her initial, simple undertaking of examining the effect of a demanding house guest on a tight-knit family, Shriver had given herself one of her most promising set-ups to date. «

Twitter: @HannahJMcGill