Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

29 Jan

I just finished Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, ‘Big Brother’ and it was one of the most moving books I’ve read in years.  I suppose I didn’t expect to like it too much – having read Shriver’s well-renowned ‘We need to talk about Kevin’, which I thought was clever and provocative but not as moving as I had anticipated, I prepared myself for what I thought would be another ‘issue’ book and I’ve always been a little sceptical about books that are dominated by a contemporary issue in society, in this case: obesity.

I don’t know if it is because the characters in the novel seem so real and true to life, especially Pandora, the protagonist who has to deal with the shock of seeing her older brother lose himself and his motivation in life; or whether it’s the knowledge that Shriver is clearly writing from the heart (her older beloved brother, Greg died of obesity a couple of years ago) that makes the story so readable and so moving.

lionel shriver

Perhaps it’s even closer to me as I have experienced what it’s like to see someone close to you eat themselves to death (my late father) and how it’s easy for the average person to take the moral highground, wagging their finger and condemning those who are fat.  We often ignore the multitude of factors such as depression, disillusionment and inadequacy that can lead one to pile on the pounds and focus instead on the aesthetics of it.  But the truth is, a significant number of obese people who undergo gastric band surgery regain the weight within a few years which suggests there’s something deeper here, and the main goal isn’t to get slim, or what many would deem a ‘normal’, ‘functioning’ member of society again.  Shriver’s writing made me loo really look at our complex relationship with food and how we often associate eating very little with purity or cleanliness, a way almost to feel superior, better, holier than fat people.

I’ve read many reviews of this book that complain about the twist towards the end, saying that they, the reader, ended up feeling manipulated and that ultimately it fell flat.  I don’t want to ruin it for those that haven’t read the book (and I would urge you to do so) but I completely disagree with these reviews.  Instead, I found the twist actually enhanced  the story, making it even more believable and bittersweet, and our understanding of Pandora as well as making us question how much influence we really have over our loved ones.  Pandora is an amazing protagonist – likeable, flawed, conflicted and fallible and her relationship with her brother who has spiralled into a cycle of self-destruction feels all too real.  Haunting stuff.

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