‘Big Brother’ by Lionel Shriver

Big BrotherstarstarstarstarThe best introduction for this book is what’s found on the flyleaf which is actually a quote straight from the book.

“‘I can’t believe they gave him a middle seat.’
‘They should really charge double, and leave the next seat empty. I lost my armrest, and the guy was half in my lap. And you saw how hard it was for the attendant to get the cart past him.’
I was relieved when the woman’s suitcase arrived, since the pariah whom she and her seat mate had so cruelly disparaged must have been the very large gentleman who two flight attendants were rolling into baggage claim in an extra-wide wheelchair. A curious glance in the heavy passenger’s direction pierced me with a sympathy so searing I might have been shot. Looking at that man was like falling into a hole, and I had to look away because it was rude to stare, and even ruder to cry.
‘Yo, don’t recognize your own brother?’
The smile I’d prepared in welcome crumpled.”

When Pandora’s formerly slim and hip jazz pianist brother arrives for a visit after an absence of 4 years, she is shocked to see that he is now morbidly obese, and that he plans to stay. How can she help him? And should she?

Lionel Shriver has done it again. She has written a novel I can’t stop thinking about and would love to discuss with others who have read it. As with We Need to Talk about Kevin the real power of the novel comes at the very end with her (by now) trademark twist, even though I enjoyed the story and the writing throughout. She is a master at handling subtleties in relationship and has a sharp eye for behaviour within families. Obesity is not an easy topic to deal with and her deft handling of the issues around it are much deeper than debates over fad diets. There are no lessons for the mildly overweight because she is dealing with serious addiction and depression here. But there is commentary between the lines about how difficult it is to maintain a healthy weight and the reasons we overeat or suffer from eating disorders.

What is important and moving to note is that the topic is central to Shriver’s own life. Her own brother was obese. But the book is not autobiographical and the lessons of the novel could apply to any form of addiction and how tricky it is for family to help.  Shriver’s poetic black humour and occasional wordiness may not be for everyone, but I respect her unflinching courage to deal with tough topics and am amazed at the insights she delivers through her story.

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