Lionel Shriver may have finally gone native.
The celebrated author of the extremely American We Need To Talk About Kevin has lived in the UK for the better part of the 21st century, and Should We Stay or Should We Go shows she’s finally arrived at a British milestone: grumpiness.
Maybe that’s a bit cruel. The plot focuses on Kay and Cyril, a British couple approaching old age who agree in their fifties to spare the NHS the trouble and commit suicide together when they reach eighty, which eventually falls at the beginning of Covid lockdowns in March 2020. The novel tells twelve alternate results of their plan, including changes of heart, rogue man-in-a-vans, family interventions over pulling the plug (or not), and some more sci-fi ventures into cyrogenics and medical miracles that reverse aging.
Time loops are one of my favourite plot devices, so this is a snappy read and I found the banter between Cyril and Kay quite enjoyable and achingly, brutally English. But overall, this didn’t quite seem written for me–a lot of musings about aging and legacy and that old chestnut, how useless young people are. The couple-as-metaphor for various social issues (mostly Brexit in this case) is utilised well, though, and it speaks to the universal anxiety we all face: what if we did that one thing differently? Where would we be now?
This is also a bit of a vehicle for Shriver to bare her political opinions, for better or for worse. The cyclical narrative means Kay and Cyril’s disagreement over Brexit is often center stage, and Cyril rants so much about “hysterical” lockdowns (he is a retired GP!) that you start to wonder whose viewpoint we’re really hearing.
Oh, and one of the scenes representing the ultimate decline of society is refugees squatting in Buckingham Palace. If only we got a Daily Mail hat-trick with Meghan Markle holding court and some sort of ban on prawn cocktail crisps.
In fairness, I probably should’ve seen this coming–Shriver’s media presence is giving off some real, uh, “fiscally conservative/socially liberal” vibes.
But reading is all about understanding different perspectives, something I sometimes feel Bookstagram and Book Twitter and whatever you want to call it can lose sight of. The fact that a few loud Internet people can lead authors to axe throwaway lines in already-published books makes my head spin. While I don’t agree with Shriver’s personal politics that are obviously baked into this novel, I don’t think it’s worth abandoning altogether.
Think of Should We Stay or Should We Go like your older conservative relative at Thanksgiving dinner–you can have a polite conversation with it about your job or your boyfriend or your latest vacation, just tune it all out when they start talking about Obamacare.
Thank you to HarperCollins for the gifted ARC in exchange for my honest review.
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