Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Water, shelter, clothes and olive oil: the primitive necessities of life

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 Lionel Shriver's The Mandibles: a family, 2029-2047 mostly takes place in the near future of 2029, when the collapse of the US economy leads to the collapse of society. Set primarily in the suburbs of New York, it relates how four generations of one family, many of whom think of "the primitive necessities of life as fresh water, shelter, clothing, and extra-virgin olive oil", deal with sudden and utter destitution.

This was the premise that interested me, but it took at least a third of the book to get to it. Before that, there was lot of rather tedious dialogue, which was unfortunately necessary to explain the economics behind the plot. With such a large family and so many characters, it was occasionally confusing working out who was speaking.

Perhaps the most important characters are Nollie, the expat author who returns to live with her niece Florence, and Florence's son Willing. I liked the feisty septuagenarian Nollie, but preferred the teenage Willing, who quietly observed what was happening, and sensibly prepared for the future. I also felt a certain affinity with Florence, her frugality and humanity.

In addition to the theme of societal breakdown, Shriver had plenty to say about how the expectation of a tidy inheritance can skew familial relationships and lead to stupid actions. There's plenty of dark humour too, nothing laugh-out-loud, but when "real poverty is about doing what you have to do as opposed to what you want", you probably need to have a sense of humour to cope.

Overall, although I appreciated The Mandibles, I think that Lionel Shriver probably found a lot more enjoyment in the writing of it than I found in its reading.

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