Lionel Shriver courts controversy. Her ill-received keynote address at the 2016 Brisbane writers festival saw at least as much written about her opinions as about her fiction. Hot on the heels of the launch of her latest book, Property, she is making waves and headlines again. In a recent article in The Spectator newspaper in Britain she castigates publishers espousing diversity, saying they are “drunk on virtue”.
Interestingly, Shriver won, and accepted, the 2005 Orange Prize for her chilling novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, a prize that specifically exists to promote diversity by championing books written by women. She was also a member of the panel set to judge the 2018 Mslexia Short Story Competition, another prize focused on writing by women – but, as a direct result of the views she expressed in The Spectator, she was removed as a judge from that panel.
In these information-rich days it is increasingly difficult to separate art from the artist, the writer from the writing. Indeed, it’s worth questioning whether we should. But anyone expecting the stories in Shriver’s latest book to be an assembly of frothing-at-the-mouth alt-right screed would be mistaken – though there are a few transgressions that may raise hackles and moral outrage.
Domestic Terrorism is the story perhaps most likely to draw flack. The black characters in the story, practically the only ones in the book, are portrayed as unsympathetic and entitled. Allegedly, Shriver refused when an editor at The New Yorker magazine requested that this element be changed in the story. The New Yorker in turn refused to publish the story.
That’s not to say Shriver’s white characters are portrayed any more sympathetically, they’re not. They are a complex, flawed, and generally unlikeable bunch, which of course is exactly what makes them so interesting.
But reading the stories in Property, it would be hard for even Shriver’s shrillest critics (their numbers are legion) to deny that she is a fine writer, with an uncanny ability to take the reader into her characters’ heads.
Property is Shriver’s first collection of short stories. Most of the stories have been previously published elsewhere. Ten short stories are bookended by two novellas (bookends being imbued with a curious flexibility that also allows them to appear at a book’s start).
The opening novella, The Standing Chandelier, is magnificent. The story of a complicated love-hate triangle, it is sublime in its exploration of friendship and marriage, and what it means to be possessive and possess.
As the title suggests, possession (as well as being nine-tenths of the law) is the recurring theme throughout these stories. The house in Repossession is possessed by a malevolent spirit – the only story that veers towards fantasy, though arguably the story of the wealthy embezzler in Paradise To Perdition turning his back on a life of unfettered luxury on an island in the Indian Ocean stretches credibility as well.
The ChapStick is an indictment of airport security measures. It’s hard not to picture the writer fuming in an airport departure lounge, hammering at her laptop keyboard in fury as she wrote this story.
Kilifi Creek is largely set in a Kenya where Kenyans themselves are near invisible, unless occasional references to carjackers and rapists are meant to suffice.
Other than these, most of the stories are set in the United States or Britain, the countries where the author spends most of her time.
The closing novella, The Subletter is set in Belfast in the 1990s. It explores a society riven by sectarian divisions through the analogous microcosm of two American women reluctantly finding themselves sharing a cramped living space.
Arguably it would be difficult for anyone to write objectively about Northern Ireland and its internecine conflicts, but Shriver tackles the task with both insight and insensitivity. Like the author, the character Sara Moseley is faced with the dilemma of cleaving to a middle-path and risk offending everyone, or eliminating risk by taking sides. Somewhat in the manner of a neophyte football supporter flippantly deciding which team to support, she chooses to side with the Protestant loyalists. Initially she does this less out of conviction and more from a knee-jerk contrarian reaction to the support (moral or otherwise) Americans traditionally lend Catholic nationalists. But once she is caught up in her chosen narrative Shriver launches into an indicting, one-sided diatribe that borders on inflammatory.
Elsewhere, in the 10 stories sandwiched between the novellas, Shriver is more sober and reflective in tone, and more than amply demonstrates that her prose is at least as effective in short form as it is in her novels.
When viewed on its own merits Property is a strong collection of short stories. Readers who have come to expect great writing from Shriver won’t be disappointed. But fiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Readers burdened with a social conscience, or those aware of Shriver’s stances outside her fiction, may find that an objective reading requires quite some effort.
Property: Stories Between Two Novellas
Author: Lionel Shriver
Publisher: The Borough Press, short stories