The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver

My husband has recently taken up ‘jogging’ again. I use inverted commas because by his own definition, jogging is more like a ‘shuffle’. And I had to giggle when Strava automatically named one of his jogging sessions ‘Afternoon Walk’. Regardless of whether it’s a walk, a shuffle, or a jog, his return to exercise has been absolutely excruciating for me – all the groaning about sore muscles, various injuries, the very fact that he has downloaded Strava… it reminds me of the depths of our middle-aged, middle-classness. Ugh.

Lionel Shriver’s most recent novel, The Motion of the Body Through Space, was a roller-coaster – I was laughing hysterically one minute (with husband saying, ‘What’s so funny?’)

…he was bracing both hands against a wall and elongating a calf muscle. The whole ritual screamed of the internet.

And shuddering in grim recognition the next –

…Remington was actually upright, albeit draped over two chairs at the dining table, hands dripping from his wrists in entitled fatigue.

The story is about a woman, Serenata, who has always kept herself ‘fit and trim’. But she’s hit 60 and her decades-long exercise regime of running and cycling has halted because she needs knee replacements. Her husband, Remington, has never exercised. After being forced into an early retirement (for reasons that are revealed in a separate plot line), Remington decides to take up a hobby – running. He finds a new community in marathon runners and triathletes, and sets himself the goal of competing in a grueling triathlon, MettleMan. Serenata takes his hobby as a personal affront, noting his ‘timing was cruel’.

There were so many elements of this book that I enjoyed – Shriver’s dialogue is spot-on, her humour sharp, and she captures the passive-aggressiveness of long-relationships in a way that allows the reader to laugh. Likewise, the commentary on the ‘wellness’ industry, and attitudes toward ageing were thoroughly explored.

There was a thrill to dying by degrees. She advanced toward apathy with open arms. She wasn’t about to advertise the fact – the argument wasn’t worth having – but Serenata was not obliged to give a flying fig about climate change…

But I was far from comfortable with Shriver’s point-scoring about cultural appropriation. She labels it ‘mimicry’ in this novel. Shriver has been criticised in the past on this topic, and I know she likes to poke the bear, but in this book she takes to it with a red hot poker (Remington’s surname, Alabaster, is just one example). There were scenes based on the theme of mimicry that hinted at a sense of bitterness. It disappointed me – Shriver is a shrewd, excellent writer, who has always managed to explore relevant and uncomfortable ‘middle class white people’ issues without having to resort to obvious or cheap shots. Some of this book strayed into the obvious/cheap territory… ever so slightly. Is Shriver being provocative or is she owning her shit? I don’t know the answer, but Motion makes for an interesting read.

3.5/5 Excuse me while I recharge my FitBit.

I received my copy of The Motion of the Body Through Space from the publisher, Harper Collins Australia, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Naturally there were smoothies. Self-deservingly large portions of meat. Cases of high-end sparkling water spiked with electrolytes.

5 responses

  1. Lionel Shriver certainly courts publicity by her stance on appropriation. After writing about the brouhaha she caused some years ago (thank you for the link) I read her Big Brother. There’s no doubt she can write, and I think that if she wrote from her ‘real’ POV rather than an imagined one, she might even be a great writer. But, as far as I know, she won’t.

  2. I’ve never read a book by her. Her public persona puts me off. You nearly persuaded me to try this one because the passages you quote made me laugh, but then the Shriver self-indulgence hove into view and I prickled again. I’ll just pop her back into my mental filing cabinet drawer labelled “Not for me”.

  3. I started this one last year as lockdown was starting and so blamed that for my inability to stay with it. I’m still not sure if I should give it another chance. The bear poking gets tiring after awhile.

  4. A lot of people have recommended We Need to Talk About Kevin, so I tried that one but did not care for it. I preferred a somewhat similar book called Before and After by Rosellen Brown.

  5. I finished The Motion etc. this week: I loved it. Obviously Shriver will not be to everyone’s taste, but her latest novel scored a big round of applause from me.

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