SO MUCH FOR THAT by Lionel Shriver. Harper Collins hbk £15.00
Lionel Shriver is best known for the award-winning and compulsively readable novel WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. This wasn't everyone's cup of tea but I thought it was terrific.
I've also read DOUBLE FAULT and A PERFECTLY GOOD FAMILY by this author and she's a writer whose work I look forward to greatly. I like her best in acerbic, sharp mode and in her latest, which is a diatribe against the health care and health insurance systems in the USA, she's on top form.
The novel concerns one Shepherd Knacker (sic) who has saved all his working life to be able to afford what he thinks of as the Afterlife: a pleasant time on an island off the east coast of Africa, near Zanzibar, where he can live an idyllic existence till the end of his days. He's got enough money to do this: go off to his blissful retirement, when his wife falls ill with mesothelioma. This cancer, which is caused by asbestos, is deadly and the health insurance doesn't begin to cover his medical costs. At the top of every chapter told from his point of view, you get a printout of his bank balance and it goes down alarmingly fast.
His wife's illness is not Shep’s only worry, either. He has an elderly father who needs care. He has a dreadful sister who sponges off him. His friend, Jackson, has troubles of his own which are both tragic and funny and totally wince-making. Jackson and his wife Carol have a daughter who suffers from a truly bizarre and horrifying disease called dysautonomia and to put it mildly, things are pretty unbearable almost the whole way through the novel. As well as telling a story, Shriver is posing questions, some of the answers to which don’t make for comfortable reading. For example, is it worth spending hundreds and thousands of dollars to prolong the life of a loved one for a few weeks of what is in effect torture? Or not? It’s not easy and she shows this very well.
Shriver could be said to over-egg the pudding, but it makes for a fascinating and energizing read because through the dreadful things that are going on in the book, Jackson provides a Swiftian commentary on everything around him. This is often funny as well as excruciating and makes you think more than twice about everything. Many books these days are "about" illness of one kind or another and even about death, but I've never read one that is so unsparing and unflinching and it’s definitely not for anyone of a squeamish disposition. We are shown how brutal, relentless and exhausting coping with terminal illness can be, but also how tender and loving it is too.
I did wonder whether the ending was too pat or unlikely but Shriver convinced me that it was entirely plausible, given the circumstances she'd set up and I think this is a brave and timely novel which rips along at a great rate. She's a writer who's never boring, and who mines her own life for material. She wrote movingly in the press recently about her failure to visit a dying friend towards the end of her life and the guilt that she now feels about this. One of the very best things in the book is Shriver's analysis of the reaction of people who are well to those who are mortally ill. Not an ordinary sort of book, but rewarding in very many ways. Do try it.
GREEK BEASTS AND HEROES by Lucy Coats Orion pbks £4.99 each
The Beasts in the Jar/ The Magic Head/ The Monster in the Maze/The Dophin’s Message
And now, as the man said, for something completely different. I mean: from the novel reviewed above. Lucy Coats’ series of retellings of the Greek myths have been reissued and for this readers have reason to be grateful.
That they’re good stories, we know already. The trouble with such things is, though, that they seem to have fallen out of favour. Fewer and fewer teachers know them well and pass them on, and so a set of books which will cheer up any school library (or home library, come to that) is most welcome. This series is a child-friendly way of introducing quite young readers to a treasure store of delights.
The stories are framed by the overarching tale of Atticus the sandal maker ,who has longed to travel to Troy for the great storytelling festival held there. He sets out at last, after many years of dreaming about it, with his donkey Melissa and as they travel, they hear stories about Gods, Monsters, Beasts and Heroes.
All the best known tales are there. Pandora, The Minotaur, The Gorgon’s Head, and many, many more. They’re told in a such a way as to be entertaining and understandable by a seven year old, but without losing any of the power of the originals. It’s also good to have the books coming out in groups of four because that will bring children’s collecting instincts into play and they’ll surely want the whole set as it appears. There are twelve books altogether with two more sets of four schedulted for May and August. They’re beautifully illustrated by Anthony Lewis and the way they’re produced adds greatly to their charm .There’s a helpful map and in between the stories, we can follow the adventures of Atticus and Melissa. A really delightful series which will keep parents and children entertained for a long time. It’s also useful to note that each story is just the right length for reading aloud at a sitting. A good time is guaranteed for the whole family.
JOHNNY SWANSON by Eleanor Updale David Fickling Books. £10.99
Johnny Swanson, the eponymous hero of Eleanor Updale’s latest novel, is a child with a vivid imagination. He is also a bit of a loner. He’s teased at school and would love to be stronger and taller. He lives alone with his mother Winifred, though his father’s photograph is still displayed proudly. We are in 1929, ten years after the end of the First World War, which is still vivid in the memory of the adults. Johnny has a newspaper round and works sometimes for Mr Hutchinson at his General Store and Post Office.. One girl, Olwen is friendly to him. When he sees an advertisement promising to make him taller, he sends off for the secret. This is the beginning of a novel with many twists and turns, much humour, lots of adventures and a good dollop of fascinating period detail and information about such things as the origins of the BCG vaccine. All through the book, the shadow of TB is there, a real threat to everyone. Even though the author tells us very firmly that this is a work of fiction, she’s so comfortable in the period and her detail is so convincing that within pages we’re right there in Johnny’s world. This is just the sort of story to appeal to anyone who likes both a good thriller (because the book turns quite dark in the middle with Johnny’s mother actually about to be hanged for murder: you can’t get darker than that) and the kind of story where the good end happily and the bad unhappily. There’s also a hint of romance. Altogether most engaging and entertaining: the sort of book that is blissfully easy to read without being mindless. Smashing fun.