Written 30 June 2021
Having read, reread and loved her novel The Mandibles I knew that I wouldn’t be able to resist this latest one from Lionel Shriver and in fact I downloaded and read it without even waiting for the kindle price drop.
It’s the story of a well to do married couple, a doctor and a nurse, who having seen close up what ageing and dying means in modern day Britain decide to enter a suicide pact. They enter this pact in the early nineties at the age of about fifty and expect it to come into effect on the eightieth birthday of Kay, who is a year younger than her husband Cyril.
The book cleverly sets the scene for the decision and rolls forward to 2016 as Cyril’s birthday nears. From then on the tale bifurcates and backtracks with each chapter playing out different scenarios: a mutual decision to renege on the deal and go into a nursing home, one or both parties pulling out, a decline into dementia with no funds, participation in a life extending drug trial and cryogenic suspension amongst others. The different permutations in how the couple deal with their decision also feed back into their development as characters.
The book is pretty short and easy to read. I like Lionel Shriver’s writing, it’s digestible with lots of wry observations and black humour. As an American who has lived and spent a lot of time in the UK she has a good eye for the mores and manners of the English middle class and in particular its political outlook. Cyril is a doctor and the suicide pact is his idea. As a progressive and socialist, his proposal is framed in terms of saving the NHS, an institution to which he has devoted his working life, as well as being an act of altruism to their children and the country more broadly. Shriver absolutely nails all the ghastliness that lies behind the world view of the rationalist doctor who in reality is much happier with an idea of society and people than with actual communities made up of people with messy lives. Cyril (in most though not all of the different futures) comes across as a pompous, overbearing, arrogant and slightly malevolent twit who isn’t half as clever and whose motives aren’t half as pure as he would like to think. Kay is altogether more likeable and fun, quite what she sees in Clive I do not know: certainly their children seem to have his number!
The real action takes place during the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and the beginning of the Covid pandemic and these are used to bring Cyril’s and Kay’s different natures to the fore. Cyril the full on EU flag waving irreconcilable remainer who spends much of his time arguing on twitter, despairing that people can’t see things his way and giving large sums of money to the People’s Vote campaign, while Kay has effectively a lapse in manners and good taste in voting Leave. Cyril then morphs into a lockdown sceptic, his rational outlook on the value of (elderly) human life given full reign in denouncing the Government’s wholly disproportionate measures. Lionel Shriver is pro-Brexit and I think pretty sceptical on Covid lockdowns herself so lines up with Cyril half of the time.
Lionel Shriver uses dialogue and disagreement between the characters to outline historical background and political worldviews which gets a bit much sometimes and can lead to the dialogue resembling an exchange of short essays. But in the end the theme of the effects of an ageing demographic and the historical background of the NHS in particular do need to be brought into play somehow, especially given the audience is likely to be largely in the US. This is worst in the first couple of dozen pages and after that is much less of a regular occurrence.
It’s an engaging and fun read that packs a punch and deals honestly with pretty crunchy themes. If the Covid crisis has taught us anything I think it is that as a society we really don’t deal with the questions arising from our own mortality very well (indeed at all). And where this meets the British middle class’s sense of entitlement, particularly over meeting the costs of long term care, is where we will be facing all sorts of debate over the coming years. Cyril for all his bluster and preachiness is at least honest about this and while somewhat misanthropic and desiccated at least faces the questions. As a society we duck this stuff.
To be honest I enjoyed The Mandibles a bit more, though I think I am likely to be in a minority in that; this is a book that will appeal to more people (we’re all ultimately invested in the question of our own deaths in a way we aren’t in macroeconomics even if it leads to civilisational collapse). By painting a variety of scenarios which range from the practically utopian to societal collapse a reader isn’t confronted with the remorseless vision of the end of Western civilisation set out in the Mandibles. It’s a bit unusual, pretty intelligent and with more than enough light hearted moments to make it a fun read while not pulling punches on the human condition and I recommend it.