The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver – a review by Dr Clare Bostock

Imagine it’s 2029 and you’re living in New York. Books are obsolete; driverless cars and robots are the norm. You have a job and you own a house with a mortgage. You’ve been noticing the price of imported goods increasing. Suddenly the dollar is worthless. Your liquid assets, if you had any, have evaporated. Two months ago, a cabbage cost $20. Now, a smaller and shabbier cabbage costs $25. To what depths of depravity will you sink in order to eat?

This is one of the many moral questions I faced while reading The Mandibles – a chronicle of a family by the same name. The patriarch is 97-year-old Douglas Mandible, affectionately known by his family as Grand Man. This debonair man lives in ‘the most luxuriously equipped assisted-living facility in the United States’, where he was frequently found playing a match on the tennis court. His descendants have lived their lives with the promise of an inheritance. Whether or not they are deserving of, or entitled to, an inheritance doesn’t matter anymore, because the money no longer exists. This book by Lionel Shriver explores how relationships change when the money disappears and four generations are literally thrown together.

I understand the principle of inflation, but economics isn’t my strong point - I didn’t know anything about ‘reserve currencies’ or ‘monetizing debt’. I found some of the economic principles in the early part of the book difficult to follow, but on reflection perhaps it’s supposed to be unfathomable. Once I got past this, and truly got to know the characters, I was hooked. I felt the characterisation was superb, but that’s not to say the characters are likeable – many are racist, ageist and immoral. I was offended by the ageist attitudes and language – older people are called ‘shrivs’ or ‘morts’.

Grand Man’s second wife, Luella, has been living with young-onset dementia. I found her attributes relatively realistic, yet for me her rhyming speech was unconvincing. The way Luella is treated by the Mandibles – tied up with duct tape or on a leash - is abhorrent. I hope that people don’t read this book and think that this is in any way acceptable. But how would you or I look after Luella in the absence of her home, food, money or continence products? No longer able to afford carers, Grand Man doesn’t have the strength to change her clothes more than once a day. When Luella gets caught in a barbed wire fence, Douglas hopes that she will succumb to tetanus. At the time, it is difficult to know whether this is the dark humour of a coping strategy or a sign of utter desperation.

Which family members would you trust to guide you through the socioeconomic crisis of 2029? The teenager Willing, always with his ear to the ground, or his unlovable uncle Lowell, a professor of economics? Some of my favourite scenes depict the out-of-touch Lowell taking a trip to the supermarket. “I find a list keeps you from getting home and realizing you forgot the Parmesan” states Lowell. There is no point in having a list. As Willing predicts, “There will be no cheese.”

The accounts of hoarding toilet roll and non-perishables are reminiscent of March 2020, but I think that Shriver describes a far more terrifying world – a world that is not science fiction. When my children moaned last week that there was “nothing to eat”, I talked to them about this book and the wealthy family in New York that have nothing to eat due to economic collapse. The Mandibles isn’t one of the best books I have read, but I happened to be reading it when I learnt of the book review section of the RCPE website. Reading The Mandibles didn’t give me a warm, pleasurable feeling – quite the opposite. My enjoyment came from trying to answer the questions the book posed for me: Do we see caring for family as an obligation? What sacrifices would we each make for our extended family? How would I cope with this level of adversity?

The second half of the book jumps forward to 2047, to an unrecognisable America. People are taxed for 77% of their wages, yet social care is abysmal - an interesting concept in the light of current discussions surrounding raising national insurance contributions. In an age where new-borns are ‘chipped’ at birth, the characters shift to consider their freedoms rather than sheer survival.

We study history with the aim of preventing future atrocities. I hope that by reading The Mandibles, a fictionalised yet realistic account of the very near future, we may achieve the same aim. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the portrayed attitudes of 2029 and 2047. Next, I’ll be reading Shriver’s notable work, We Need to Talk About Kevin. I’d like to suggest that we really need to talk about The Mandibles.