This is a book of stories about stuff. Some are funny, some are silly, some are clever, and all of them have the arch, in-on-it air that Lionel Shriver does so well, although it tips over into snark often enough that the rare note of wistfulness is more than welcome.
Most of the stuff — or property, per the title — takes the form of real estate.
A repossessed house haunts a new buyer. A young bohemian couple buy a house, only to discover that there was romance in renting, and suddenly the resident raccoons aren’t so cute. A boy of 30 or so, as blandly intransigent as Bartleby, won’t leave his parents’ house. (When his mother gathers the nerve to tell him, “We really think it’s time for you to find a job and move out,” he serenely responds, “I can see how you might think so.”)
A couple decide to divorce but, stymied by negative equity in their home, are held together by their house. (Fickle property values haunt this book like a capricious spirit.) A widow, entering her husband’s unsung battle with the self-seeding tree in the adjoining property, takes the fight to the neighbor.
And in one of the novellas that bookend the stories, Sara, a young American woman who “hadn’t moved to Belfast so much as run out there — run out of money, run out of wanderlust, run out of Europe” — is on the verge of a big move when her vexing subletter gives her a new view of her place.
Set against the background of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in particular the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Sara’s predicament expands the book’s notion of property well beyond the literal threshold to the broader sense of belonging. When Sara thinks that “in one respect [she] had gone native,” she means the “closed-mindedness and sanctimony” that keep so many of her adopted compatriots above the fray.
Although the novella is at heart apolitical, its setting also gives Shriver the opportunity to exercise the topical feistiness that distinguishes so much of her work. There are pithy pronouncements aplenty (“the one thing that a nationalist loves above all else is his grievance”) and page-long statements of fierce principle in the guise of Sara being defensive — and disgusted with principles.
Finally, another definition of property is “quality” or “character,” as in, per Charles Dickens, “Regrets are the natural property of grey hairs.” And in many of these stories there are fine distinctions and indefinable links between what these characters are and what they own.
When, in the opening novella, a woman creates a masterpiece of folk art, a sort of tree of lights incorporating all manner of personal memorabilia (her wisdom teeth, e.g.), and confers it on a friend, is she giving herself away or staking a claim? Ownership is, in the end, a conundrum.
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in Wisconsin. Her reviews have also appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere; ellenakins.com.
By: Lionel Shriver.
Publisher: Harper, 317 pages, $26.99.