Shriver brilliantly sharp in short story collection

Rob Kidd reviews Property, By Lionel Shriver, published by HarperCollins. 

Short-story collections nowadays are so deliberately vague, the meaning so transient, the reader can feel somewhat adrift.

It appears unfashionable to give stories a clear thematic thread or a conventional climax.

Lionel Shriver bucks that trend and successfully so.

The title sets the unashamed central commonality in the 10 short stories, bookended by two sparkling novellas.

In a literal sense, Shriver writes about houses, homes, belongings, stuff.

But she explores the emotional ties we affix to such possessions.

Physical items often embody much more than their simple functional purpose.

In the opening novella "The Standing Chandelier", the ownership under the microscope is a relationship between two people.

Jillian Frisk, a frivolous but quick-witted character who "pursued purposelessness as a purpose in itself", strikes up a friendship with Weston Babanski.

The pair have played tennis together for years, they dated (it did not work out) and the platonic bond they share has endured.

That is until Weston meets his new partner Paige.

Jillian gifts them an intensely personal artwork to celebrate their impending nuptials before finding out she is not invited to the wedding.

What follows is almost a custody battle over the sprawling sculpture, which gradually accumulates more and more meaning as the standoff matures.

Shriver, with brilliant sharpness, considers the outlook of each character and teases out the narrative.

The real triumph of Property is the characterisation.

The author, even in the briefest of the short stories, creates characters who almost immediately become three-dimensional.

And even more than that, Shriver makes us care about what happens to them.

Most of the yarns pit one party against another and the reader is forced to pick a side.

In "The Subletter", US expat Sara Moseley plans to temporarily give up her Belfast flat to the effortlessly fashionable but slovenly Emer.

When she reneges on the deal and turns up to turf out the newcomer, Emer becomes unbearable.

It is at the end when true personalities are revealed and property is shown to be just that - stuff.

The outrage Shriver first provokes is replaced with guilt.

It can be an unsettling experience.

Another gem is "Vermin", in which a Brooklyn couple's purchase of a ramshackle house destroys their relationship.

In the early days of their residence they find a family of raccoons living nearby.

Shriver illuminates that feeling of new ownership and the magic it can invoke.

"A raccoon isn't an exotic creature for most Americans, but they were our raccoons, and they were exotic to us. We inhabited a secret world at the end of a private little street where the night was alive. The raccoons were wildlife. They encouraged us to believe that we were leading wild lives, too."

We may be defined by our properties but it as a warning to not let them define us.

Rob Kidd is an ODT court reporter and books editor. 


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