‘Big Brother’ by Lionel Shriver tells the story of Pandora Halfdanarson and her relationship with her brother, Edison, a jazz musician who is coming to visit her in Iowa where she lives with her husband and two teenage stepchildren. On arrival, Pandora is horrified to discover that Edison has become morbidly obese in the time since she last saw him four years ago and has to decide whether or not she will take matters into her own hands.
It has been about five years since I read Shriver’s best known novel ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and I have finally got round to investigating her other work. ‘Big Brother’ was inspired by Shriver’s brother’s death linked to complications from obesity and as with ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, she writes thoughtfully about a controversial issue which is often sensationalised. It is not so much the issue of food itself which is dealt with here but rather the emotional and behavioural challenges which surround it and the question of who is ultimately responsible.
The story explores the widespread effects that Edison’s weight has on how Pandora sees her brother, the reasons why Edison started eating compulsively, whether or not he possesses the willpower to lose over two hundred pounds and Pandora’s own dysfunctional relationship with food. Although Shriver presents a clear message, the issue is examined thoroughly from different angles. This thoroughness is reflected in the prose itself which is very wordy. However, while I think Shriver’s writing is very readable, I think it is one of those things you will either really like or really hate.
I can’t say too much without giving everything away but I had slightly mixed feelings about the ending, or rather I had several different feelings about it in quick succession. At first, I was just surprised. Then I felt annoyed and a bit cheated as it seemed as though Shriver couldn’t choose between the two outcomes. But then I decided that the dark message it sent about how we perceive and tackle weight and addiction issues – or at least how we feel we ought to deal with them – was actually very very clever.
Overall, ‘Big Brother’ is a multi-layered and intelligently written novel about one of the most difficult and challenging issues facing society today. Ironically, it is both uncomfortable and compulsive reading. I will try not to leave it five more years before I read another of Shriver’s novels. If you have read any of her other books, which ones would you recommend?