Should we stay or should we go - a review
By Trevor Moore Should we stay or should we go
Lionel Shriver, Borough Press, 2021, ISBN 978-0-00-845856-0, 266pp
Lionel Shriver is possibly as well known for the controversy that she stirred up some years ago following her remarks at the 2016 Brisbane Writers’ Festival. At the risk of wrongly summarising things, she criticised the argument that writers – most particularly white writers – are guilty of “cultural appropriation” by writing from the point of view of characters from other cultural backgrounds. Her point, I think, was that it is the work of a fiction writer to - as she put it - “step into other people’s shoes and try on their hats.” One criticism of Shriver’s speech was that it was “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction”. My purpose here is not enter any debate about the tricky subject of cultural appropriation but to review a book by a writer who is not afraid of sticking her neck out.
I recall hearing her talking about Donald Trump of whom she had a pretty low opinion. Apart from thinking that he was suffering from dementia she also remarked that would have been “too far-fetched” to appear in a novel a year ago and that writers would have been criticised for not inventing a “more beguiling demagogue”. I was reminded of this because apart from reading Shriver’s latest novel Should we stay or should we go I have read a couple of recent books (see at the end of this review) about Trump driven by a prurient interest to understand the workings of a man so obviously peculiar. Whatever I may or may not think about Shriver’s views on cultural appropriation, I pretty much share her views on Trump.
But, to the subject: Shriver’s latest novel, Should we stay or should we go. I would like to have been a fly on the wall for the debate about whether the title should have a question mark. I am quite sure that in the relevant literary halls of power there were many heated debates on this important question. The “no question mark” party won the day. It still seems odd. Shriver is American and shares her time between London and Brooklyn. Should we stay or should we go is set, mainly, in London and Shriver manages to insert several colloquialisms that are definitely British. She has her characters ringing one another up, she has prevailed upon her editor to spell the verb to practise with an “s” … these, to my mind, are important details not the least because her two main characters are very definitely English - and I mean English and not British.
Cyril and Kay Wilkinson are in their 50s as the book opens. She has been a nurse and he a doctor, she is a bit of a free spirit while he is a frustrated socialist. They decide that they will kill themselves when Kay turns 80. They have a logic for doing this: Kay’s father was a victim of dementia, and his death was proof to Cyril that old people hand around too long and consume medical and social resources that could be better directed elsewhere. Cyril squires the necessary medication which is stored, in a little black box, at the back of the refrigerator. But things do not quite go as they planned but we find this out at the end of chapter 3 on page 71. There are 200 pages to go. In chapter 4, Cyril and Kay reappear and go through a different process of dying … or not. And so the novel proceeds through a series of “what ifs”.
The idea of a suicide pact provides Shriver with the opportunity to explore different ideas of life and death, or at least the end of life. In one chapter Kay and Cyril’s rather unpleasant children consign them to a dreadful old-age facility, Close of Day Cottages, whose sadistic staff compel the couple, after 60 years of marriage, to sleep in separate rooms. In another chapter the couple are cryogenically preserved, and Shriver imagines what it might be like to be reanimated in a future world that is radically different to the one you left. In all the scenarios both Kay and Cyril die, but not always when they are 80.
Both Kay and Cyril are likeable enough though their three children are truly dreadful. I found myself being glad that I have relatively normal children. At least, I think I do. Perhaps they would consign me to a ghastly aged-care facility given half a chance. But the novel is not really a novel about death … it’s a novel about a relationship. The fact that the relationship is a marriage is by the by. Shriver is exploring, and encourages her reader to consider, what it means to be in an intimate relationship with one person for 60 years. In that context it is interesting to think about the place of the individual in that relationship. In the case of Kay and Cyril the relationship is critical, but it never seems to remove the power of the individual. When it comes down to it, this is a novel about life and not about death.
It’s a good book. It’s designed to make its reader think. I found it, I have to say, in Moruya Books and it may be that there are copies still there. Janice posted on Facebook last week that she is “running a tight ship behind closed doors for anyone that needs to squirrel some more reading away”. She is taking orders Monday — Friday, 0900 — 1200 by phone, email or SMS. You can prepay and collect, or she can mail your books to you. Support a local business: buy a book. Buy two. In fact, definitely buy two.
Note on Trump: The two books I read were Micheal Wolff’s Landslaide and I alone can fix it by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. The Wolff book is the third in a trilogy on the Trump years and follows Fire and fury (2018) and Siege (2019). I found it hard to read as it seemed be all over the place - possibly as a result of the event it tries to record. There are too many characters and it’s too easy to forget who’s who. I think he wrote it in a hurry. The Leaning and Rucker book, on the other hand, is a masterpiece. It’s not short at 570 or so pages (compared to Wolff’s 300) but it’s thoroughly readable. It leaves you open-mouthed at the antics of some of these people and makes you wonder who actually ran the US in the last year of the Trump presidency. And it makes it clear that the whole election fraud thing was just made up. I think democracy in the US had a pretty close call. Come to think of it, perhaps it still does.
But if you are weird like me then the Leonnig and Rucker’s I alone can fix it is a page turner you won’t regret reading.