Sunday 16 March 2014

Big Brother

It's hard when you have a strong reaction to a book to move on to something else by the same writer. I have not tried anything Lionel Shriver wrote before Kevin (which won the Orange Prize in 2005) though I did read 'The Post-Birthday World' and did not like it so much. 'Big Brother' is her most recent book published last year and I have been listening to it on audiobook this week.

On the surface it is a story about Pandora, who is horrified (and that's not putting it too strongly) when she discovers her brother Edison has become morbidly obese. Taking a break from his hip jazz piano-player lifestyle he comes for an extended visit and his weight gain becomes, as she says, the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. For the first half of the book she becomes his enabler, allowing him to indulge his every want, to the frustration and disgust of her slightly control-freak husband. As the end of his stay approaches she learns that there is nothing for him to go back to. Work had dried up and he had sold his beloved piano and eaten away the proceeds. In fact there is no home nor anything else to go back to since the storage company sold off his entire possessions to cover unpaid bills. In the second part of the book she decides to save him from himself and together they move into an apartment and embark on a crash diet that has interesting consequences for them both.

The book is about lots of things. It is about weight, and society's prejudice against and judgement of overweight people. It is about food and people's often very complex, often very twisted relationships to eating. It is also about fame. Their father is a famous sitcom star, having for years appeared in a show about a divorced family, and they both spent their childhoods obliged to live up to the fictional children in his onscreen family. Edison has his own measure of fame within the jazz world, and has not handled it well. And Pandora has found herself recently famous because her successful doll company has attracted the attention of the media. They have all handled their own and each other's fame in different ways. But mostly the book is about siblings. I have always felt that sibling relationships are unlike any other. They are part of your growing up and the childhood that has made you the way you are. You are separate but you have so much in common. Siblings are not like friends, you don't choose them, they are just there. There is a sense of obligation and responsibility that can be both a burden and a reassurance. It is also about how siblings lives grow apart and you cannot hang on to the intensity that is there in childhood. 

Zoe Williams at the Guardian didn't like it much, and I have to kind of agree with her. None of the characters are very likeable and the whole scenario is so incredible. I had to work hard at suspending my disbelief, rather as if reading fantasy. I kept wanting to say 'but what about...' or 'that just would not happen'. Their weight-loss programme is unhealthy and positively dangerous and no one in their right mind would inflict it on a grossly overweight person. But the transformation is brings is equally unbelievable; Edison just would not magically turn back physically into the young man he once was, and the weird personality changes were even more strange. Pandora's relationship with her husband is just bizarre, the only nice one being with her two step-children. Shriver tries to fix the whole thing with an afterword at the end of the book, retelling the story as it really happened, as if the tale was Pandora's fantasy of how she might have helped her big brother, to salve her conscience, to stop herself feeling she had let him down, but I am not sure it works. While I enjoyed the book and it had lots of ideas, it was very flawed, and maybe it is a warning about writing something that is too close to home. 

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