Lionel Shriver writes the way a champion boxer fights—with gloves held high and a series of quick, tough jabs.
A Perfectly Good Family, first published in the US and the UK in 1996, is being released in Australia for the first time. It’s the story of three children who have been willed a grand Reconstruction mansion by their parents. Each heir wants the house for different reasons, but none can afford to purchase it from the others outright. With the mathematical precision Shriver is known for, the scene is set for uneasy alliances and calculated betrayals. Corlis, the only daughter, is torn between her meek younger brother and the bullying eldest.
It’s difficult to speak about A Perfectly Good Family without considering Shriver’s recent success. She won the 2005 Orange Prize for We Need to Talk About Kevin, a study of how maternal ambivalence contributed to a school shooting. She has also taken on competitiveness in marriage, population control, infidelity, and terrorism. These are heavy subjects that make the theme of sibling rivalry in A Perfectly Good Family pale. Shriver is nothing if not courageous.
She is also a master of psychological undercurrent. It doesn’t matter that we never like any of these characters. Shriver manages to compellingly capture the nature of family dynamics with all the tradeoffs, bitterness, ancient wounds, and buried love. The situation between Corlis and her brothers builds word by word—expert jabs by the prize-fighter—until the reader is left craving not a particular solution but any solution at all.
(A Perfectly Good Family, Lionel Shriver, HarperCollins Publishers, $24.99.)
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2008.