Friday, 21 June 2013

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

***SBRs 10th Best Read for 2013***

Publication date: 9th June 2013
Published by: Harper Collins
Literary Fiction 

Lionel Shriver is probably most well known for her novel We need to Talk About Kevin, which was also adapted for the big screen.  She is one of the highest profile authors I know of, and I have often seen her appear on interviews and take part in debates about serious issues (such as the recent Boston Marathon terrorist attack), but this is the first novel by her that I have read.

Big Brother is a first person POV narrative provided by protagonist Pandora.  She starts by telling us about her relationship with food.  Formerly a professional caterer, she still enjoys preparing sumptuous dishes for herself, her husband and step-children.  Unfortunately somewhere along the line in their relationship her husband Fletcher became a maniacal health addict who is serious about bike riding and obsessed with healthy eating.  He behaves like the food police, trying to enforce his banal dishes on the whole family.  

Pandora has become a successful business woman.  Her company manufactures ‘Baby Monotonous’ customised doll versions of their owners complete with a pull string that activates recorded catch phrases of their owner.  She has a unique product that sells well and this has made her somewhat famous.  She has made several appearances on high profile magazines such as Time.  She has an older brother, Edison, to whom she is close and a much younger sister, Solstice, to whom she is not.  On the occasions that Edison visited her in the past, he and Fletcher clashed.  Pandora describes Edison as a handsome and confident jazz musician, but she has not seen him for several years.  She receives a call from a friend of his telling her that Edison is down on his luck and needs a place to stay.  She informs Fletcher that Edison will be coming to stay for a while and, although he protests at first, Fletcher agrees to this.

Pandora waits for Edison in the arrival lounge of the airport.  When he appears Pandora is shocked.  She does not recognise him at first.  Edison is morbidly obese and at first is being wheeled towards her in a chair. He gets out of the chair and shuffles towards her with great effort, clearly hampered by his weight.

There is a limit to what I can say about this one without ruining the plot but, as you can probably tell, it is about someone who has an addictive nature and in this case the addiction is food.  Pandora understandably is troubled by her big brother's condition and at first ignores the elephant in the room.  Eventually she can ignore it no more and so she attempts to get to the bottom of what is going on with her big brother and explores how she can save him from himself.

For me Big Brother is also about food in general and a nation's obsession with it (I won't say America's obsession with food since it is not alone.  The UK is certainly not trailing far behind in that regard).

I found the idea for the story to be original and clever but as I read I was surprised by the prose. It struck me as rather ‘light’ and predictable.  I would not have thought Lionel Shriver would be the type of author to do light.  As it turns out, she isn’t.  It was I who got it all wrong, and once this became clear to me I thought, ‘That’s more like what I was expecting.’  She had me completely fooled and when reality hit, for me this book went from being a really good read to a great read.  Be warned, Big Brother is very dark, brooding and melancholic.  For me the writing is perfection and the story was so affecting I was thinking about it for days afterwards.

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