Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Review: ‘Property: A Collection’ by Lionel Shriver

My first introduction to Lionel Shriver was in an AS-level English class, where the theme of our reading was Nature vs. Nurture. We Need to Talk About Kevin became a focal point of the whole year as it seemed to withstand the curse of assigned reading by actually fascinating everyone. That book introduced me to the power of Shriver’s writing and especially to her ability to put the uncomfortable in the spotlight and force everyone to look at it. So of course I jumped at the opportunity to read Property: A Collection when I first saw it. Thanks to HarperCollins, The Borough Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub Date: 4/19/2018
Publisher: Harper Collins UK, The Borough Press
In her first ever story collection, Lionel Shriver illuminates one of the modern age’s most enduring obsessions: property.
A woman creates a deeply personal wedding present for her best friend; a thirty-something son refuses to leave home; a middle-aged man subjugated by service to his elderly father discovers that the last place you should finally assert yourself is airport security. 
This landmark publication explores the idea of "property" in both senses of the word: real estate, and stuff. Immensely readable, it showcases the biting insight that has made Lionel Shriver one of the most acclaimed authors of our time.
 The title of this collection is perfect, because all the stories in Property come down to ownership. Who owns what and how does that change and define us. But the stories are not just about physical property, they are also about how we own ourselves and others. There is a self-contentedness in many of Shriver’s younger characters that drive others wild. Why are you content with what you have and who you are, take some ownership of your actions, acknowledge the effect you’re having on others! (These are just some of things I wanted to shout at a few of Shriver’s characters.) Shriver has been a difficult writer for me to engage with ever since her column in the Spectator in which she lambasted the push for diversity in publishing and pushed back against “PC censorship”. That, in my opinion, narrow view contrasts sharply with the emotional intelligence of her writing, in which she articulates so clearly the topics most of us avoid. Perhaps this is why she chose to focus on the “PC culture”, but whether you agree with her or not, there is no denying that Property is a very engaging read.

The highlight of Property is the opening story, more of a novella really, ‘The Standing Chandelier’, which shows the development of a decades-long friendship between the artistic, if a bit airy-fairy, Jillian and her ex-lover Baba, who is in the process of getting settled. Shriver moves between their points of view and it is almost heartbreaking how clear it becomes that their close relationship is untenable. We can’t own the other, no matter how much of ourselves we give. Another highlight, of a different kind, is the story ‘Domestic Terrorism’, in with a 32-year old son, Liam, simply refuses to own his own life. When his parents finally kick him out the story almost descends into a farce, but Shriver’s sharp writing keeps it on the knife’s edge, bringing in political commentary on the refugee crisis and millennials (which you can read whichever way you want) as well as a close look at how family interacts. ‘Vermin’ is another favourite of mine, in which the sheer fact of house ownership drastically changes the story’s characters. Imagery-wise, this is one of the most beautiful stories in the collection for me. Not all stories in Property are equally effective. Both ‘From Paradise to Perdition’ and ‘The ChapStick’, for example, feel preachy, but in completely different ways. It feels like Shriver has an ax to grind, but with what or who exactly isn’t entirely clear.

There is a calmness to Shriver’s prose that I find myself enjoying. She is the kind of storyteller who knows exactly how ridiculous what she is describing is, but she never ruins the joke by laughing herself. Many of her stories are concerned with big emotional moments in people’s lives, yet Shriver avoids the melodrama that sometimes suffuses such stories. The only time she fails to do so is when she is trying to make a point, like mentioned above. That is when the stories lose some of their strength for me, when they become vehicles for something other than themselves. However, in general there is a clarity there that allows her to get very close to her characters’ emotions without letting them overwhelm the story. There are many laugh out loud moments in Property and many of Shriver's characters are unlikable, yet it is compelling reading nonetheless.

I give this collection…
3 Universes!

Shriver is a great writer and the stories in Property are a great analysis of just how tied down we are by what we own,  whether it is an object, a relationship or even just a feeling. Even if Shriver's personal beliefs sometimes bleed into the stories, they remain mostly fascinating.

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