The statistics aren’t pretty. According to a 2011 Statistics Canada report, 18.3% of adult Canadians are obese. And, in 2007 Forbes published a list of the world’s fattest countries, where, out of 194 countries, Canada ranked an alarming 35th. Clearly, obesity is something we Canadians need to think about, yet weight is a topic that remains taboo.
In her latest novel, Big Brother, Lionel Shriver explores the complex and timely issue of obesity using bold and unflinching prose. Shriver has a reputation for tackling tough and provocative topics – in her 2005 Orange Prize winner We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver tells the story of an ambivalent mother, whose son is responsible for a school massacre. Although on the surface obesity may not seem as complex or dark as a mass shooting, Shriver’s exploration illustrates that obesity can have devastating consequences not only for the obese person, but also for his or her friends and family. In Big Brother Shriver explores themes of addiction, love, family, and the cultural phenomenon of obesity.
40-year-old Pandora, step-mother to two teenagers, runs a quirky but lucrative business selling novelty dolls. Pandora’s husband, Fletcher, meanwhile, is struggling to keep his business selling one-of-a-kind furniture afloat, compensating for a lack of sales by over-zealously exercising and conforming to strict eating habits. While this family may not be traditional, they have achieved a certain rhythm. Everything is thrown off kilter, though, when Pandora gets a phone call – her big brother Edison needs a place to stay. At the airport Pandora is shocked to find that her brother, once a hip – and fit – jazz musician, is about three times the weight he was when she last saw him. Edison is morbidly obese.
The story that follows is at once fascinating, upsetting, joyful, and enlightening. Shriver explores the extremely complex subject of weight with a delicate hand, yet at the same time she does not sugar coat the matter. Shriver has created a story that is disconcerting and distressing, yet at the same time lighthearted and witty. The ability to elicit such complex and conflicting emotions, speaks to Shriver’s skill as a writer. In a recent interview, Shriver told the CBC that Big Brother is inspired by her own older brother, who died of complications of obesity in 2009. This connection may explain how Shriver was able to articulate extremely complex emotions and create characters that are highly relatable. As I read Big Brother, I paused frequently to appreciate the craftsmanship of this work. Every word felt purposeful and precise. Every plot point felt well thought out and pertinent.
Big Brother is as entertaining as it is thought provoking, and is one of those books that I wish I could go back and experience again for the first time.
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