Review: So Much for That

This novel attracted my attention as it is written by Lionel Schriver, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2005 and which has sold over one million copies in twenty-five languages. Lionel Schriver wrote seven novels before Kevin, which she called her ‘make or break’ creation after seven years of professional disappointment and ‘virtual obscurity’. Six of her seven novels were published; one failed to find a publisher. Since Kevin, Ms Schriver has written five novels, including So Much for That, which was published in 2010. She is an inspiration to all of us novelists who feel that our creations have not received the deserved recognition.


Lionel Schriver

So Much for That’s principal character, Shep Knacker, is an entrepreneurial handyman, who is both skilled and likeable. He is able to sell his New York City-based business for one million dollars, and his plan is to move his wife Glynis, his son Zach, and his daughter Amelia to Pemba Island off the coast of Tanzania to live her rest of their lives in low-cost, stress-free comfort. Glynis, though she has been involved in numerous searches around the world to find the perfect place for their ‘Afterlife’, has doubts. Just as she is being confronted with a decision to go or to stay, she is diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer. Escape to Pemba has to be postponed while Glynis undergoes months of treatment. The American healthcare system being what it is, Shep’s nest egg is gradually depleted by co-insurance payments and invoices for un-covered treatments. In order to keep the insurance he has, Shep must continue on the payroll of his prior company, under the unsympathetic supervision of the new owner. Glynis finds that the likely cause of her cancer is exposure to asbestos, with which she had contact in her metal-working hobby. She decides to sue the company which made the asbestos products. Just as Shep is on the verge of bankruptcy, Glynis wins her case and the money received covers an Afterlife in Pemba.

There are several other characters, including Shep’s friend, Jackson, who engages in diatribes against the Mooches (the freeloaders) and the systems that lets them take advantage of the Mugs. Jackson’s daughter, Flicka, who suffers from a horrible, terminal, childhood illness is a vehicle, along with Glynis, for debating the value of human life. There are doctors of doubtful honesty with their patients. And there are decisions about whether to be a Mooch or a Mug.

So Much for That is an entertaining story. It is human, sad, funny, heroic, and, and it is difficult to put down. I felt, at times, though, that the author was lecturing me about the dreadful state of healthcare in the US, and other assorted inequities in life. Several characters, including Flicka, and Shep’s sister, Beryl, are so polarised that one tends to lose what sympathy we should have for them. At the outset, I found it difficult to buy into Shep’s vision of the Afterlife; acceptance of his vision came when his troubles grew acute. Occasionally, I found the text somewhat oblique. For example: “It was disconcerting to be systematically punished for what might have engendered a modicum of gratitude.” Why not say: “He was annoyed to be punished for acts of kindness”? Sometimes, for me, the dialogue didn’t ring true, but perhaps I am being too picky.


I liked So Much for That. It makes some very important points about what is to be human: what’s good about our humanity and what’s not so good.

Review: A God in Ruins

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been out of the office: my PC has been neglected, but I’ve done some reading.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson is without a doubt the best book I’ve read in a long time, and it’s easy to see why it won last year’s Costa Book Award.  In fact, the judges called it, “Utterly magnificent and in a class of its own.  A genius book.”

The author has some pretty heavy-weight credentials.  Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year in 1995 with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.  Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series.  Her last novel, Life After Life, was the winner of the 2013 Costa Novel Award.  She was appointed MBE in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours.


Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins is the story of Teddy Todd, a would-be poet, lover of the countryside, and heroic bomber pilot during World War II.  The story begins in 1925 and zig-zags back and forth in time until its conclusion in 2012.  As the number of his completed combat missions piles up, Teddy does not expect to see the ‘Afterwards’ in which he will become a husband and a father.  Throughout the story, he faces life as it is without complaints about lost opportunities, heartbreak, or feelings un-expressed.  He is surrounded by the characters of his own family and by some of the family who are neighbours.

The writing is captivating and tight; there is no excess baggage here even though the book runs to over 500 pages.  The characters are distinct, and the story line never lags.  What most impressed me about the novel was the authenticity of the descriptions of flying bombing missions in a Halifax, but then, at the end of the book is a three page bibliography of sources.  Ms Atkinson did a lot of research!  I understand why it too two years to write this novel.  There is an interesting device she used which turns fiction on its head.  Fascinating!  But I’m not going to give it away.  Sometimes I felt slightly put off by the broken chronology, but in reading the book over a period of days, I began to feel that it was building nicely to a conclusion.  This is a novel which fully engages both one’s emotions and one’s beliefs.

Review: The Meursault Investigation

This novel, written by Kamel Daoud, reveals the hidden side of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger.  In The Stranger, Camus has his principal character, Meursault, shoot and kill a nameless Arab for no apparent reason other than possible disorientation from sunstroke.  In The Meursault Investigation, Daoud names the murdered Arab as ‘Musa’ (Moses), and considers the implications of the murder from the viewpoint of Musa’s brother ‘Harun’ (Aaron).

Camus was a French-Algerian philosopher, an ‘absurdist’ who held that human life is absurd.  He was also regarded as an existentialist (he disagreed) and a pacifist.  He was born in 1913, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, and died in 1960.  In The Stranger, which was published in 1942, Camus used the murder of the nameless Arab for no reason as an example of the absurdity of human life.

Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oman.  His background is similar to that of Camus: French-speaking, Algerian writer and philosopher. The Mersualt Investigation is Daoud’s first novel, published in 2015, and it has been recognised with several prizes in France.


Kamel Daoud

In The Mersault Investigatiom, Harun is in a bar in Oman reflecting morosely on his brother, his mother and the book by the listener’s hero (Camus).  Included in his reflections are thoughts on Algeria, its people and its relationship to France.  The tone of the book is pessimistic and its conclusions are ambiguous (much like the tone and content of The Stranger).  One is left with the impression that there can be no God, and that life itself can have no meaning.

This is not an enjoyable book to read, because of its pessimistic philosophy, and because nothing conclusive arises from its reflective monologue.  No new ‘facts’ emerge about any of the characters, except that Musa was a real person who was loved by his mother and close the the heart of his younger brother.  Still, one has the impression that The Mersault Investigation is a classic in the absurdist philosophical tradition.  If you liked Camus’ writing, you will certainly appreciate Daoud’s.  He has created a well-written philosophical sequel to one of Camus’ great works.