Lionel Shriver at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Monday 22nd April 2013

IMG_1885What a weekend. The Chipping Norton Literary Festival is fast turning into my favourite event of the year. ChipLitFest has only been running for two years but with a star-studded line-up, venues scattered across a pretty Oxfordshire town and a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, it’s fast giving longer established festivals a run for their money. I’m not in the least surprised that a staggering 3,000 tickets were sold this year.

I was hard-pressed to choose which events to go to but they all turned out to be corkers. Perhaps the most memorable of all, though, turned out to be Lionel Shriver’s packed event at Chipping Norton’s theatre.

I’ve always been torn about Shriver’s best-known and Orange Prize winning novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Later made into a film starring Tilda Swinton, it’s the disturbing story of Eva, a mother who finds herself unable to love her son – with chilling consequences.

But even so, I’m intrigued by Shriver – and especially by the way she refuses to be influenced by literary trends. In a world dominated by branding, marketing and publicity, I admire the way she writes what she wants to write – however controversial her subjects.

Her new book, Big Brother, tackles obesity and our obsession with our weight and size.

When Pandora goes to meet her brother Edison at her local airport in Iowa she doesn’t recognise him. Quite literally doesn’t recognise him. It’s been four years since she last set eyes on him and in that time Edison has changed from an athletic-looking New York jazz pianist into a vast bear of a man. He has gained hundreds of pounds, is wheeled into the airport by two flight attendants and is treated like a pariah by his fellow passengers.

That’s just the start of Pandora’s problems. Back home, as her brother’s slovenly habits, terrible diet and tedious monologues drive the household mad, Pandora’s fitness-freak husband gives her an ultimatum. It’s either him or her brother.

This is an intelligent, brave, shocking novel and I couldn’t wait to hear Shriver talk about it. As she told the audience on Saturday: “It’s a big social issue and I’m a sucker for those. It’s a point of sensitivity for everybody. We have become chronically neurotic about food and mass.

“It may be – and I haven’t really thought about it before – but part of it must be the proliferation of photographs in our lives. If you think about it, in the olden days you didn’t see pictures of yourself very often. You might see yourself in the mirror sometimes, but for the most part you looked out.”

Two particular moments stood out for me during her talk. The first was her assertion that she’s “a big proponent of ordinary life – I don’t think it is very ordinary.” How true is that?

And the second came when a member of the audience asked what she thought about the interview Lynn Barber did with her in The Sunday Times Magazine the week before. The piece appeared to be obsessed with Shriver’s reluctance to turn on the central heating, her habit of wearing a coat and gloves indoors (sounds utterly normal to me – I do it all the time) and her daily exercise regime.

“This is in the area of ‘don’t get me started,’” said Shriver drily. She added that she found the piece “demeaning” and sexist, and remarked (quite rightly, in my view) that if Barber had been interviewing Philip Roth she wouldn’t have been quizzing him about his exercise regime and central heating.

“It has still got my goat,” she added. “I thought maybe that I should stop giving interviews. It turned out to be a big mistake. She does not understand me and I thought that was her job.”

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins, £16.99) is published on May 9

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