Cover Lionel Shriver's The Motion of the Body Through Space


Bestselling author Lionel Shriver is not one to run away from a fight. In her latest novel, she runs full tilt towards it, in just about every sense of the word.

This week, I’m looking at her 15th novel, a satire that is unafraid to go eyeball to eyeball with diversity, ageing, victimhood and extreme exercise, to name but a few.

Lionel Shriver’s The Motion of the Body Through Space

Shriver is, you feel, never happier than when she’s poking her own liberal readership in the eye. In recent years, she supported Brexit; hoped concerns over cultural appropriation would be “a passing fad”; and said publishers would fast-track a book “written by a gay, transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around on a mobility scooter”.

As a result, critics accused her of racism. And women’s writing magazine Mslexia sacked her as a judge of their story competition.

The Motion of the Body Through Space, her fifteenth novel, is written with unrepentantly corrosive wit. At its centre we find the larger-than-life Serenata Terpsichore, a 60-year-old American woman whose career as a narrator of audiobooks is disappearing because her greatest talent – pitch-perfect accents – has become her downfall, seen as “mimicry… and cultural appropriation”.

It’s a sharply pointed metaphor for white authors (like Shriver) who dare to create diverse characters.

However, Serenata’s problem is not only her job but her joints. After a life of extreme exercise, her shattered knees are forcing her to give up running. This at the very moment that her husband, Remington, is falling in love with it.

Worse, he has fallen under the spell of the ghastly but well-ripped Bambi, who grooms a small band of worshippers to compete in “MetalMan” – an extreme triathlon with over 140 miles of swimming, cycling and running.

And who is also worryingly much younger than Serenata herself.

Attack at any cost

In Serenata, Shriver draws on her own experience of being an “exercise nut” and the arthritic knees that resulted, to create a masterfully caustic protagonist.

It is as if she (Serenata – and I suspect also Shriver) cannot stop herself going on the verbal attack at every opportunity, whatever the cost.

In Serenata’s case, the dry, rapid-fire quips that she has happily shared with Remington all their married life threaten to destroy that very happiness.

It’s a brave portrait from a writer who has herself admitted to losing friends thanks to her outspoken views.

And in case she hasn’t risked enough offence, Shriver creates a magnificent monster in Remington’s ex-boss. A much younger African-American woman, promoted over his head, who is only too happy to weaponise her ethnic victimhood. And ensure that Remington’s long career comes to a rapid end.

Comedy of modern manners

The Motion of the Body Through Space is a sparkling depiction of modern middle-class life, obsessed with anything that will delay the process of ageing and, ultimately, death.

It is also very, very funny. A comedy of manners fuelled, as the best comedy often is, with great anger. Anger at life, at younger, nubile women, at damaged knees and at injustice. Not least the injustice of damaged knees.

You would also have to have a heart of ice not to laugh at the skewering of Bambi’s fitness fanatics, with their neat slogans and certainties.

Plus, it’s a gripping yarn.

From the first lines, you know someone is riding (swimming and running) for a nasty fall. Certainly some of the characters. Possibly also the author.

The only question is, who.

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