Lionel Shriver did have a “big” brother, he died from an apparent obesity related illness as 55. This knowledge made her latest book Big Brother feel all the more uncomfortable. It is a no holds barred look at the obese, fat, weight challenged – call it what you like, but it’s a bumpy ride.
Pandora’s older brother Edison comes to visit. She hasn’t seen him for four years and he is unrecognisable. Weight gain has left him bloated and barely able to walk. Pandora is horrified but pretends that she isn’t. By the end of the first chapter I am feeling uneasy.
Edison is portrayed as gross, out of control, aimless and self-centered. Pandora’s husband – the taut, tight Fletcher – is a manic cyclist and health food fanatic who is equally as horrible, and Pandora is somewhat cold and detached. She has made a fortune producing custom-made dolls that resemble the people who receive them. Each doll has a talk function where they utter scripts provided by the giver, usually an opportunity to provide sly digs about the recipient’s bad behaviours. The dolls are funny but with a sting in the tail, a bit like Shriver perhaps as again she has compiled a cast of fascinating, brutally honest and utterly unlikable characters.
Pandora eventually acknowledges to Edison that she is worried about him, but he steadfastly refuses to cut back on his food intake. Descriptions of massive amounts of cheese, fast food, cream, piles of pancakes and butter left me feeling somewhat unwell. Just as unappetising is Fletcher’s quest to become the ultimate lean machine, producing dry, bland, fibre based meals laden with self-satisfaction.
Pandora decides that she will take Edison in hand, and rents them a flat for a year in which he will have to lose 163Ibs or be sent packing. They both embark on the diet shake based system- as Pandora is horrified that she put on a bit herself, and the abandoned Fletcher remains bitter and twisted in the family home while brother and sister bond over their joint sense of deprivation.
Will Edison lose all the weight? Can Fletcher and Pandora’s marriage survive the separation and accusations that go with Pandora’s quest to help her brother? Will I ever be able to eat again without memories of Edison’s rather unfortunate episode in the toilet?
I am left with a huge sense of ambiguity about this book, I can’t decide whether it gives the finger to our obsession with diet and weight, or literally feeds into it. Would I recommend it? Yes, most definitely but be warned, it’s not pretty.