Books and reading

Amusing, troubling, insightful, and occasionally annoying: ‘Should We Stay or Should We Go’ by Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver (US born, now based in the UK) is a controversial author. She picks up on contemporary social themes and preoccupations and interrogates them with razor sharp wit, in the process holding up a mirror that reflects modern society back to itself, mostly with less than flattering results.

Kay Wilkinson and her husband Cyril are middle class Londoners with respected careers in the NHS – she as a nurse and he a doctor. When in their fifties, she and her husband are both appalled at the possibility that they will suffer from dementia (as both Kay’s parents did before they died), or become disabled by a stroke or another debilitating health condition. So they make a pact that when they have both turned eighty they will suicide together. In the discussion leading to this decision, Kay says:

Everyone thinks they’re the exception. Everyone looks at what happens to old people and vows that it will never happen to them… They value quality of life. Somehow they’ll do something so their ageing will proceed with dignity... Then it turns out that, lo and behold, they’re exactly like everyone else! And they fall apart like everyone else, and finish out the miserable end of their lives like everyone else…

Should we stay or should we go p12-13

Okay, so some of these arguments touch on tender points for me just now. My mother is 92 and suffers from dementia and several other long term illnesses, and there have been plenty of times when my best wish for her is to close her eyes peacefully in bed and not wake again. Also, I have had discussions with friends and family about voluntary assisted dying which sounded very like another of the arguments put forward in the novel, this one by Cyril:

You said everyone imagines they’re exceptions and they’ll surely arrange an early and merciful exit before submitting to the intolerable, And then they do submit to the intolerable. That’s because, in order to retain agency over your own end of life, you have to be willing to give up some small portion of it that’s not particularly rubbish. Otherwise, you go downhill, doctors and relatives take over, and you’re apt to lose the very part of yourself that makes judgements and takes action. We have a very narrow window in which to exercise control.

Should we stay or should we go p30

So, the couple seem united and sure of their decision. And then, as the book cover blurb says: they turn eighty.

What follows is a twisting, circular, whirlwind of a time travel novel which explores and expounds on multiple final outcomes for Kay and Cyril, and indeed the whole nation and humanity more generally. The scenarios played out are by turns horrific, fanciful, eccentric, far-fetched, almost believable, idealistic or depressing. Scenes, sentences, characters appear and re-appear in different guises and surroundings as ‘sliding door moments’ take the characters one way and then another. It’s almost a grown-up ‘choose your own adventure’ story. I admit to feeling breathless a few times as I was carried away on the author’s imaginative tide of possible outcomes.

There are plenty of darkly funny moments, and it’s hard not to admire the wicked ways in which the author has made national and global preoccupations at the time of writing – Brexit, climate change, ageing populations, the Covid19 pandemic – symbolic of so much that Kay and Cyril are grappling with.

Should We Stay or Should We Go is a clever novel that skewers and taunts as much as it poses serious questions. There are laugh-out-loud moments but a word of warning: if you are already by nature or mood pessimistic, worried about your own future and old age, or dealing with themes of death and illness in your own life: be careful. This novel could either shake you up with a good belly laugh at its audacity, or leave you deeper in the gloom.

Should We Stay or Should We Go is published by The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in June 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

2 Comments

  • Susan Francis

    thanks for this review Denise. A book that sounds like it explores ideas I am currently grappling with. I think I need to read it, as hard as that will be, and I would not have known about the book other than from you, so thank you (I think). xxxx

    • Denise Newton

      Hi Susan, it is definitely a book of its time. Re- reading my review I realised one of the potential problems of scheduling posts in advance: my reference to Mum and her struggles was made before she passed away. It leapt out at me on reading the post this morning! Although my point remains. This book certainly hit a personal nerve for me

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