In 2009 Lionel Shriver wrote a column for the Guardian, describing her fear that her 330-pound older brother might kill himself from overeating. "My brother is only 55, and without drastic intervention--gastric bypass surgery or a sudden resolve on his part that I fear is unlikely--I doubt he'll see 60. My brother is eating himself to death," she wrote. Days later, her brother died from respiratory failure.
Shriver, an American-born journalist and novelist who lives in London but has spent time in Nairobi, Bangkok, Tel Aviv, and Belfast, dedicates her newest novel, Big Brother (reviewed on page 42), to her brother, "in the face of whose drastic, fantastic, astonishing life any fiction pales." Yet, she told Bookmarks, "I deliberately avoided some of the political arguments circling obesity: the fat pride movement, the demonization of Big Food, controversies over fat taxes. This is a novel, and the place to address such issues would surely be in nonfiction. In general, the book focuses on the characters' relationship to food, diet, and their own bodies, so it loosely puts what we eat and what we weigh in our own laps."
As in Big Brother, Shriver's topics are not for the faint-hearted: she has applied her storytelling skills to global terrorism (The New Republic, 2012), teenage violence (We Need to Talk About Kevin, 2003), and health care (So Much for That, 2010), among other controversial subjects. "True, my subject matter has been disparate," she told Bomb magazine about her novels, now numbering a dozen. "In order: anthropology and first love, rock-and-roll drumming and immigration, the Northern Irish Troubles, demography and epidemiology, inheritance, tennis and spousal competition, terrorism and cults of personality ... high-school shootings and motherhood ... [and] the trade-offs of one man versus another and snooker. ... My characters all have something horribly wrong with them." Mass murderers, mothers who hate their children, and egoistic athletes they may be. But through gripping, touching, and even funny stories about painful feelings and situations, Shriver humanizes terrible acts and pushes readers into places we're generally afraid to go.
Born in 1957 in Gastonia, North Carolina, to a Presbyterian minister, Shriver subsequently embraced atheism and libertarianism, moved to Belfast and settled in London, and married jazz drummer Jeff Williams. She published her first novel, Female of the Species, in 1986, but she still had what she describes as a "a long, unlucrative stint in the literary trenches." Publishing her first six novels in near obscurity, Shriver supplemented her...