Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Lionel Shriver’

Property: Stories Between Two Novellas by Lionel Shriver

Property: Stories Between Two Novellas is a collection of ten short stories and two novellas by Lionel Shriver. Each of these stories have a theme of ownership of some type or other.

The first novella is The Standing Chandelier and is the story of Weston and Jillian who met and became friends at university. For a while they were lovers of the ‘friends with benefits’ type, but by their forties were friends who played tennis and talked about the big things in life several times a week. Jillian and Weston may have continued their friendship forever except that Weston met and fell in love with a woman who hated Jillian, who is the type of person who is either loved or hated by other people with no middle ground. Oblivious, Jillian poured her heart and soul into making a chandelier for Weston and his bride as a wedding present.

Domestic Terrorism is a story that will strike fear into every parent’s heart, that of an adult child who will not leave home. Some people (childless people perhaps) might find this story funny, but I was terrified.

Luckily, The Royal Male was much more my style. The story is an amusing romance between a thieving postman and a woman whose letter to an old flame he has intercepted. I also enjoyed Negative Equity, the story of a couple who had fallen out of love but couldn’t afford to sell their home and go their separate ways.

Kilifi Creek is a more thought-provoking story which told of a young American traveller in Kenya, thoughtlessly free-loading her way through life, when she almost drowned. Later, another accident made her realise that eventually she would run out of luck and opportunities.

Vermin made me feel nostalgic for a more carefree time in my own life, when paying the bills, housework and roof leaks didn’t much matter. This story told of a young couple whose bohemian lifestyle was lost after they became home-owners.

The Subletter was the final novella of the collection. Sara, an American, had been living in Ireland for 11 years in a crappy apartment, enmeshed in Irish politics and the rights and wrongs of the Troubles. On an impulse, Sara decided to sublet her apartment and move to Thailand, but was unable to give any of these up when it looked as if her new tenant was taking over Sara’s life in Ireland where she had left off.

Lionel Shriver’s writing is always good, but her work can be bleak and often leaves me feeling uneasy. I enjoyed this collection of short stories and their humour, black or otherwise, the unexpected romances and the evocations of nostalgia.

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver


I’m a big fan of Lionel Shriver’s writing, although her fearless approach to topical and difficult subjects often makes me feel uncomfortable. She writes about ideas that some people might agree with but wouldn’t bring up in general conversation because of the fear of being judged. Her latest book, The Mandibles: A Family, 2027-2049 made me feel equally as uneasy as anything else of hers I’ve read.

I read We Need to Talk About Kevin years ago and still get cold shivers remembering the family and events of that book. The characters in A Perfectly Good Family made me realise that my family are not the worst ever, (although I do believe that all families are somewhat dysfunctional). Big Brother made me question how much can I do for my own family, in terms of leaving them to manage (or mess up) their own affairs.

The Mandibles: A Family, 2027-2049 is similar to other books I’ve read by this author, in that the dynamics of a family are at the heart of the story.

The story starts in 2027, when the younger generation of the Mandible family have been waiting for some time for their expected inheritance. Sadly for them, their 97 year-old patriarch, Douglas Mandible shows no sign of dying and when the US economy fails, everything the family expected to inherit is lost except for the family silverware and a few trinkets. A new global currency called the bancor became the almighty in place of the American dollar, and the American people, including the Mandible family, are suffering.

Douglas divorced the mother of his children many years before the story started, and married a much younger woman, Luella. Douglas’ daughter Nollie is a best-selling author who no longer writes because in 2027, nobody buys books – blame the internet. Nollie had been living in France but after the US economy crashed realised that Americans abroad were no longer safe, so returned to New York to move in with her niece’s family.

Douglas’ son Carter was in his 70’s and hanging out for his inheritance. He and his wife Jayne were financially comfortable, at least in 2027 when the story started, but they wanted to live in absolute luxury before they were too old to enjoy it. Carter and Jayne’s retirement didn’t go according to the plan, as Douglas and Luella were forced to move in with them once Douglas’ money was gone. Luella’s dementia adds an additional strain to the household.

Carter and Jane’s children, their son and daughter’s in law and their grandchildren make up the rest of the characters and by and large, most of them were also mad-keen to receive their inheritances. Willing, one of the youngest of the family, was the only person besides Douglas who understood from the beginning what was happening to the US economy, and who realised that they would need to lie and steal and cheat to enable their family to survive the hard times that were coming.

In an attempt to repair the economy, the US government wiped out their National debt, deemed Treasure Bonds worthless, and compulsorily acquired gold from US citizens  – not just shares or actual ingots, but wedding rings and gold fillings, which meant that rich people were hit very hard by the measures while poor people’s debts disappeared overnight.

Tourists began coming from other countries to the US to enjoy five star dining and life’s luxuries for less than the price of a soft drink at home, however the US eventually became an unsafe destination because so many visitors were mugged.

Spanish became the main language used in the US and a Mexican-born President is in the White House for most of the story. There are ongoing water and food shortages due an event which happened sometime between our present and this story’s version of 2027 which the characters call ‘Stonage,’ when the US’s electricity (and internet) were wiped out by terrorists.

Lionel Shriver has invented some hilarious slang for the future, including ‘Boomerpooper,’ as in; thanks very much Baby Boomers, because what has happened to us is all your fault, ‘Karmic-clumping;’ where if one thing goes wrong, then so will everything else, and ‘Shrivs’ for old people. There are no people in this version of the future with lactic or gluten intolerances, because people can’t afford these ‘indulgences’ anymore. There are no books, or print journalism, because anybody can say what they like on the internet. The lack of toilet paper is a serious problem. I’m considering stockpiling just in case…

I would be happier if the events in this novel don’t actually happen, but as one character says,

“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all.”

I skimmed over some of the character’s conversations about economics, but in some ways, not being interested in or understanding economics is the whole point of this novel. Those of us who can’t be bothered with or don’t understand finance trust other people to manage our country’s money for us, while we assume everything our governments and banks do is right and good. In this novel, the American way of life as we know it has ended because unsustainable financial practices used now have made the dollar in this version of the future worthless.

I did enjoy the irony of this plot, but struggled reading so many mini-essays about finance and economic theory. As always though, Lionel Shriver left me with plenty to think about.




A Perfectly Good Family by Lionel Shriver


A Perfectly Good Family is by Lionel Shriver, who also wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Lionel Shriver seems to specialise in stories about dysfunctional families. We Need to Talk About Kevin is chilling. I read it years ago, and while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, the horror of the story certainly stuck in my head. A Perfectly Good Family is about an equally dysfunctional family, although in there favour, they are not psychopaths.

The story is narrated by Corlis, an unsuccessful artist in her thirties, who has been living in England. Corlis comes home to North Carolina when her mother dies, for the funeral and for her inheritance. Corlis and her two brothers, Mordecai and Truman have been left a quarter of their family home, with the remaining quarter being left to a good cause, in this case, the ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union.

In an interview with the author at the back of the edition I read, Lionel Shriver said that she modeled the family home in A Perfectly Good Family on a real house, the Heck-Andrews House in Raleigh, North Carolina. The actual house is a Reconstruction Mansion, built about 150 years ago, and has been vacant for decades. The interior is in a derelict condition, although some money has been spent restoring and maintaining the facade.

The siblings have an uneasy relationship. Underneath all of their bickering and fighting, they love each other, but when Corlis moves back into the family home, Truman, who has never left home, becomes resentful. Although Truman has married, and he and his bland wife, Averil, have the third floor and the dovecot, his main gripe is that he has been looking after their controlling, demanding and difficult mother for years, maintaining the house and keeping things ticking over, while Corlis and Mordecai been off having a good time.

When Mordecai moves back in to the house too, the family’s relationships become even move complicated. Mordecai is a hard drinking, three times married slob, who walks all over Truman. (Truman could be described as ‘passive-aggressive’). Corlis, who has spent her whole life taking sides with one or the other of her brothers, is put upon by Truman and Mordecai to take out a mortgage with them, to buy the house from the other brother. (My mother always says never to have three children, because two will always gang up on one. Possibly Lionel Shriver’s mother told her this too, which then formed the basis of this story).

While I enjoyed A Perfectly Good Family, I wish I had read this author’s books in order of her writing them. This is a perfectly good story, but I think Lionel Shriver’s writing has gotten better as she has gone along and it is difficult to compare earlier works with the later books.





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