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Susan’s Bookshelves: Should We Stay Or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver

Even the title is clever – the deliberate omission of a question mark makes it ambivalent. It could be a question about intent or it could be a subjunctive statement meaning “If we should stay …” and therefore speculative in the what-would-happen-if sense. Oh the joys of this gloriously flexible language of ours.

Kay, a  nurse, and Cyril, her GP husband have been happily married and settled in Lambeth for a long time. Nursing her father through the graphically physical awfulness of Alzheimer’s has the effect on Kay it does on many of us. She recoils in horror at how the same fate could await her. After her father’s death in 1991 she and Cyril – it’s his idea – agree that once they are both 80, regardless of their state of health, they will overdose on the Seconal which Cyril has stashed in the fridge thereby sparing themselves a hideous demise. The agreed date arrives shortly after Brexit and in the midst of the Covid pandemic.

So what happens? That is entirely up to you, dear reader. Forget that omniscient author that A Level English teachers bang on about. This one is gleefully unreliable.  Maybe Kay takes the pills and Cyril bottles out. Or perhaps they’re caught just before the deed and sectioned by their children. Maybe neither of them do it and they enjoy many more years of healthy productive life. On the other hand perhaps medical science comes up with an unexpected world changer. Anything can happen because Shriver tells a whole string of versions of this story, repeatedly winding back and then making different things happen. Thus the cleverest post-modern novel I’ve read since The French Lieutenant’s Woman forces you to be an active reader and choose your own outcome. She visits a whole range of fictional worlds too – like variations on a theme in music.  She often reminds me of John Fowles. Margaret Atwood and Ray Bradbury are clearly in the mix too because some of her scenarios take us well into the 21st century when things might be healthy, peaceful and prosperous. Or they might not. Is money really just an abstract concept? Would we really want to live for ever even if we could? And surely it really is time to think rationally about assisted dying?

There’s nothing obscure about any of this. It’s a very accessible read and often laugh-aloud funny. Shriver’s wry, taut writing style in more honed than ever in this novel. I shall long treasure, for example, Kay’s sardonic observation that “Simon and Hayley rang to wish her a ‘safe’ birthday – safety having been mysteriously elevated of late to the highest of virtues.” And at one point she pillories herself as “that Shriver woman”  an irritant that her characters hear on the radio.

Many of the books I discuss here are re-reads of books I’ve known for a long time. Should We Stay or Should We Go is a 2021 publication which I felt compelled to share because it’s one of the most original new novels I’ve read in quite a while.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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