Author of one of this year’s quieter success stories, Big Brother, Lionel Shriver is an author who I am still waiting to receive the explosive success and popularity that she has been due for decades. Publishing her first novel in 1986 it has only been in the last eight years or so that her work has been finally gaining some attention, but there’s always room for a few more readers. I’ll be honest, I haven’t read any of these books in three or four years but I still class some of them amongst my best loved and Shriver as one of my favourite authors. I will, of course, re-read some of these one day to refresh my memory and re-evaluate them in light of what I have learnt since my first reading but I remain confident that she is really quite brilliant and one of the smartest writers I’ve read. Her control of intricate and, on times, complex narratives bears incredible ease.
We Need to Talk About Kevin
My love affair with Shriver’s writing began in 2007 when I finally forced myself to read my copy of her 2005 Orange Prize winning novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin (pub. 2003). By now most people have heard of this book thanks to its 2011 film adaption starring Tilda Swinton. Back then the only reason I had a copy was because I found it on a Buy 1 Get 1 ½ Price offer in WHSmith (I only know this because the big, yellow, faded sticker still adorns the front of my very worn copy). I tried several times to read it but, being only 15, I struggled. Finally I took it on holiday with very few other books leaving myself no choice but to read it and I am incredibly glad I did. Had I encountered this text for the first time as an adult it likely would have had a far milder effect upon me but aged 16 and finally leaving behind all forms of childhood ignorance, whilst re-structuring my understanding of the world this book struck me. I haven’t yet returned to it out of fear that the magic it holds in my mind will shatter but, hopefully, it is as good as I remember.
The primary investigation of this text is whether Kevin, born to a hesitant mother, is inherently evil or if it his mother’s coldness towards him which drives him to murder (not a spoiler, it’s in the blurb). The presentation of Eva’s resentment towards her young son is shocking but also believable. Not every woman is suitable for motherhood and yet she may be forced into it – is she to blame for her failure as a mother? The question of blame is never quite answered in this text because, as in reality, these issues are not clear cut. Shriver’s writing is smart; she will pose a question but she won’t answer it. That’s up to you.
The Post-Birthday World
On a par, to me, in excellent with Kevin is Shriver’s follow-up, The Post-Birthday World. The outstanding feature of this text is the author’s excellent control over a narrative which easily could have slipped into confusion. Irina McGovern’s life is about to set upon one of two courses. Does she kiss Ramsey, long-time acquaintance and passionate snooker player or resist and remain with her long-time partner Lawrence? Upon this moment the text splits, following each of the possibilities. Just as in Kevin, this text won’t give you a black and white or a right and a wrong. Reflecting the truth of reality, each path and decision we take bears its own flaws which we must learn to accept and not question how things could have been lived differently. This book is a good answer to endless ‘What Ifs’.
Here is where my knowledge begins to break down because, as I said, I haven’t read these books in several years and some of my copies fail to bear blurbs. On the surface, Double Fault tells the tale of two tennis stars who met and fall in love. Each is ambitious and dedicated to success. The strength of their relationship fluctuates as their individual tennis rankings change – as Eric outranks Willy, will she learn to forgive and love him beyond their rivalry or does her heart truly belong to her dedication to the game? As always, Shriver investigates relationships and the underlying pressures which make them tick. An earlier work, published in 1997, it isn’t as powerful as the previous two listed here but nonetheless it’s definitely one to pick up some time if you want to reach back into the beginnings of Shriver’s work. I found the two characters to be selfish and was not endeared to either of them which made progress through the book somewhat difficult but then, had they been soft and kind it would have disrupted the basis of the plot somewhat. I’ll leave it to you to read through and form your open opinions.
A Perfectly Good Family
With a trio of warring siblings and a North Carolina mansion at stake, this book looks at what happens when family ties rupture and children are left to inherit both their parents’ property and psychological influences. This is the earliest text on this list and I would say it definitely shows. Though a good read with some interesting issues this isn’t as striking as the rest. I include it here merely as a contrast to the others out of interest. It is one I would happily re-read but certainly is classed as ‘just one of the books I’ve read’ and not a stand-out memory. I didn’t care all that much about the characters or what happened to the house, I found myself thinking ‘oh just grow up’ when they would act as petulant children.
I am yet to read 2013’s Big Brother because I’ve been waiting for the paperback so I can actually afford it (woes of post-student life) but having read her cutting, astute article on the relationship between celebrity and food which closely coincided with the release of the novel I have very high hopes for it.
Next week I hope to share a theme-based collection rather than a celebration of an individual author. Are there any genres/themes/eras you would like my picks from?
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