Sunday 23 February 2014

'Big Brother' by Lionel Shriver

When Pandora’s older brother Edison comes to stay she’s shocked to discover he has put on hundreds of pounds, and is now barely recognizable. He spends an uncomfortable two months living with her and her family, a period that stretches her marriage to breaking point, and leads her to question how responsible family members are for each other, and how much should they be willing to sacrifice.

The way in which Edison is judged for his weight problem is quite uncomfortable to read. It feels like this novel is trying to break the stereotype and get people to realize that being overweight isn’t something people should be judged for, and that often there are underlying issues that have caused it. However, as well as obesity being portrayed as a very personal struggle, Shriver also uses this novel to comment on the unhealthy relationship with food a lot of people struggle with. If everyone’s fat, nobody fat, is one thought of Pandora’s that really stuck in my mind. Shriver doesn’t neglect the fact it can work both ways though, commenting that people have forgotten how to eat properly, the profusion of eating disorders and obesity highlighting our need to get back to basics and relearn how to do this most basic of tasks.

Pandora stereotypes larger people as being friendlier, and thinner people as being more judgmental and superior. And yet, the moment she starts dieting to help her brother do the same, suddenly she thinks herself above everyone who is still stuffing themselves full of food. Very quickly it becomes very much Pandora’s problem as she gets addicted to her liquid only diet, finding it difficult to force herself back to solids. A cautionary tale about the dangers of obsessing over food, and the extremes it can take. This is an important message in a world where to be thin is so many people’s goal, it’s so often forgotten that being underweight can be just as dangerous, and those who obsessively diet or exercise can be using it as distraction in the same way that people eat for comfort.

Although the main focus of the novel is obesity and attitudes toward food, there is a strong theme of blood relations compared to the family we choose by marriage and childrearing. Pandora’s husband Fletcher is constantly confused and jealous of her relationship with Edison. It seems to make him uncomfortable that they share a closeness that he is not part of. The understanding that is unique to siblings, and of which he can never be privy to, is something he doesn't want to accept. Pandora spends a lot of time torn between trying to help her brother and not wanting to abandon her husband. The theme of loyalty runs strongly through this novel, and it makes you question exactly where a sense of entitlement comes from, and exactly how much a sibling can expect from you.

It is Pandora telling us the story, and so we are told, in retrospect, what her take on Edison’s time with her was like. We experience her confusion, and her changing view of her closest relationships. In the end, she still seems stuck on the question of is it better to try and help with no end to the obligation, and no guarantee of success, or to let the distance grow, and allow that nobody can be responsible for anybody else. There’s also a sense of loss at letting go of the way she has viewed the people around her from a young age, and seeing them as they really are as years of admiration or contempt are dissolved.

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