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Less would be More
on 5 June 2011
The inadequacy of the US health insurance system; the complex, shifting emotions within a relationship in which the wife is struck by possibly terminal cancer; the dynamics of a family in which one child has a degenerative disease: these themes could combine to make a moving and opinion-changing masterpiece, but call for a subtlety and lightness of touch to make so much pain bearable. For the first half of the book I felt oppressed by the opposite, that is, the tsunami of words, the detailed, by turns pettifogging or unsavoury descriptions, lengthy digressions and rambling rants, always three or more examples where one would do. There are also some very original or telling comments, although they are at risk of getting lost in all the verbiage.
The story begins with Shep Knacker packing a bag to present his wife with an ultimatum: the time has come for him to travel to the idyllic African island where he has decided to settle, and he plans to take off whether she accompanies him or not. This could serve to reveal a good deal about our "hero" but instead becomes a pretty negative description of his wife. I would much rather have discovered what Glynis is like through situations and dialogues than be told what to think. Admittedly, some descriptions are very striking:
"..in art school, Glynis had not chosen her medium by accident. She naturally identified with any material that so fiercely refused to do what you wanted it to, whose form was resistant to change and responded only to violent manhandling. Metal was obstreperous. Were it ever mistreated, its dents and scratches caught the light like grudges." It's the last sentence that stands out for me.
Then the story moves on to Shep's "best friend" Jackson, whose exaggerated diatribes I admit to finding amusing and telling. It took me a while to realise that his sparky but odd daughter is in fact disabled with an obscure physical condition that blights not only her life, but that of the entire family. I felt very discouraged at this stage. Was so much suffering really necessary?
Also, in the midst of the wealth of unpleasant detail about bodily malfunctions, the opportunity is missed to enact, rather than report second-hand , some dramatic scenes, such as the point at which Glynis tells Shep she has cancer, and his initial reactions as his chance to escape evaporates, or to explore his feelings towards a woman he is prepared to leave until he hears of her need for his health insurance. This would not only have made the story more emotionally engaging, but also shown a clearer progression of the character's thoughts. Yet Shriver is capable of being very incisive, as when she closes a chapter with Shep's admission to himself that he only has enough money to realise his dreams if Glynis "dies soon".
As it is, the links between stages in both dialogue and scenes are at times clunky and contrived, and major new developments may seem to occur too abruptly, such as the degree to which Jackson has "reached his limit", when you might have expected Shep to be in this state.
Another limitation is that none of the characters seems to be afflicted by the sense of anguish based on deep love, or the fear of loss of a companion. This may be acceptable for Shep because he is ultra practical and pragmatic, but makes for a less moving story, in which you care too little for in many ways unlikeable people.
Perhaps I became inured to all this suffering, but the book improved for me as I persevered, and the last hundred pages or so seem the best: well-paced, plot strands coming together well, an ending which was remarkably positive, and avoided sentimentality, mawkishness or the cop out of not knowing how to finish the dilemma one has created. However, even here there is a superficiality in the personal relationships, a kind of "cold heart" and skimming round the depths of real grief.
I acknowledge Lionel Shriver's undoubted talent, but wish she had made the book shorter, checked her narrative for overkill (no pun intended), and toned down some of the cynical wisecracking humour, perhaps the product of an attempt to write like an American male.