From a few days after my GCSE English teacher thrust a worn out copy of We Need to Talk about Kevin into my hands, promising me that it would be the best thing I had ever read, I have loved Lionel Shriver’s work; so the fact that I was able to be in the same room as her around five years later is something that I am still coming to terms with.
Lionel Shriver was at the Birmingham Literature Festival (formerly known as the Birmingham Book Festival) to speak about her new novel, Big Brother, which follows the turmoil experienced by Pandora, a middle-aged woman who makes speaking dolls for a living, after her once near-perfect brother turns up a few-hundred pounds heavier.
I must admit that I haven’t actually got round to reading Big Brother yet, and probably won’t get to for at least another year (I have a self-enforced ban on all reading that is not related to my degree or dissertation), but this session with Shriver made me want to throw everything aside and read then and there.
As one would expect, Shriver’s novel is concerned with the political and personal. On one level, the novel is concerned with responsibility: to what extent should healthcare services be responsible for looking after the obese; and to what extent are our friends and family responsible for us? Where do our loyalties truly lie? Of course, the layers of the novel are wonderfully complex, with Pandora juggling the roles of sister, wife and step-mother; her brother’s presence causes severe conflict between Pandora and her husband, Fletcher.
Another of the novel’s most interesting concerns is fame, a topic Shriver had a lot to say about. Shriver claimed that anonymity is a blessing, and appreciates the fact that she has never been recognised in Tesco and can still buy reduced fish without being judged. That is not to say that she loathes all recognition: ‘I’m here, after all,’ she quipped. What Shriver claims is that it’s healthier being appreciated for one’s talent and work, rather than an obsession with every detail of a celebrity’s lifestyle.
Shriver has learnt this the hard way. Big Brother is inspired by her brother’s obesity-related death, but her ultimate aim was to protect him. To do so she wrote an article for The Financial Times explaining her motivations. She subsequently sold the article to The Daily Mail, on the proviso that it would be printed exactly as it was. The latter publication made significant changes to the article, using a headline somewhere along the lines of: ‘My brother ate himself to death’. During these moments Shriver was incredibly honest, admitting that this was her biggest regret.
What was most striking about Shriver was her eloquence. When the evening proceeded to the audience Q&A, Shriver paused to consider her responses and was able to articulate her ideas exceptionally well; my favourite point of the evening was Shriver’s defence of her work: ‘My novels are not cynical. My novels are dark – yes. But they are not cynical.’ This is what makes Shriver such a presence: she is articulate, funny and serious – somehow all at the same time. She is also incredibly self-aware and has an astute understanding of personal relationships.
Then the typical but much-anticipated question was asked: what is Shriver working on next? A novel that is at bit Orwellian, by the sounds of it: ‘Let me tell you, we have not experienced financial ruin yet,’ Shriver said darkly. ‘I’ll be writing a near-future novel,’ she admitted. ‘I was thinking that I could still be alive in 2040 and that scared me.’
One of my greatest fears (which has been realised) is that when you meet your hero, they will be a mere shadow of the person you had hoped they would be. Fortunately, Shriver was exactly as I had hoped, and so much more. Should she ever return to Birmingham (or wherever I live in the next few years), I’ll be on the front row.
By Jenna Clake