This was my first encounter of Lionel Shriver’s writing, and I was certainly not disappointed. Known for other dystopian-style works such as We Need to Talk about Kevin and Big Brother, Lionel has a knack for really exploring the hard-hitting issues that are plaguing our modern society.
The Mandibles takes us on the journey of a family dealing with the collapse of the American dollar. The country’s currency becomes practically worthless overnight, with a new superior international currency put in place overseas – the bancor. Indeed, the downfall of the USA is largely influenced by the now super-power that is China, assisted by the neighbouring Russia.
The family in question are (or perhaps now, were) incredibly wealthy. Most of them live plush lifestyles, spend without care, and are exceedingly selfish. The grown-up child that does live sparingly knows that she doesn’t actually have to, and the thought of her impending inheritance weighs heavily on her mind.
Without giving away too much – as I’d encourage anyone with even a remote interest in dystopian fiction or global politics/economics to read it – the family suffer badly, lose everything and have to rebuild their lives from the bottom. Relationship dynamics change, secrets are exposed and there isn’t really a ‘happy ending’ for anyone. At least not in the traditional sense.
The Mandibles is a gruelling account of what could be and this is only made even more realistic through Lionel’s superb use of time and excellent characters. On time, she reflects perfectly how the country would react to something like this. Whilst the change may happen overnight, not everyone and everything is immediately doomed. Some are in denial over what is happening for most of the book. Food prices gradually increase, as does homelessness and unemployment. This isn’t the immediate meltdown of society that you would perhaps see after a geological or nuclear attack. It is the steady decline of a nation.
The characters are also diverse and again, believable. They reflect perfectly a family, even if that family isn’t one that every reader can relate to. You identify and even sympathise with each – even the late-teen who escapes the suffocating family walls and becomes a prostitute, after going to university is no longer a possibility. The family’s future rests on one of the largely cynical yet incredibly intelligent children – he seems to be able to see through what is happening and approach things with a clear and level head. We follow his journey into adulthood, when the world looks much different and other challenging choices must be made.
From most of the characters in the book, there is a large sense that what’s happening isn’t actually happening at all, or that it will all blow over like it has done in the past. References are made to previous financial declines and international feuds, some that have actually happened in the real-world and others which are set even beyond 2017. She makes educated and viable guesses that places like Vietnam and Indonesia (both countries which have seen economic growth in recent years) are now much more powerful than even the USA. The Vietnamese now come to America to enjoy a cheap holiday, rather than the other way around. It also can’t be a coincidence that the novel starts in the year 2029, one-hundred years after the Great Depression in the USA.
One can’t help but think this a comment for how Lionel – and many of us – view much of society’s attitudes in the present day. With every ‘bad thing’ that happens, we do not seem to be learning from it. We are lucky that as of yet nothing has affected us so obviously; however our previous ignorance towards climate change seem set to change that. It is vital that Lionel has included previous societal downfalls and has the characters mention that things still continue to function. She addresses the common plot-hole that a lot of other dystopian novels fail to address.
When I finished The Mandibles, I wasn’t left thinking ‘I’m glad that won’t happen’ or even, as I do with better dystopian fiction, ‘what if that happens’. Instead, I was left pondering when the issues she addresses will happen and how our society will cope when her writing becomes true.