Should We Stay or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Lionel Shriver’s many admirers will eagerly acquire her latest work, Should We Stay or Should We Go.  She has the reputation for courageously and powerfully examining important issues; for instance, the Columbine massacre was the impetus to write We Need to Talk About Kevin and population control in Game Control.

Now she poses various scenarios to contemplate for those considering choosing when and how to end one’s life.

The very title presents the fact that this is a question that is not easily decided. She proceeds to offer choices and outcomes which can be horrifying, realistic, whimsical, idealistic, and sometimes in the realms of science fiction.  This confronting subject, however, is made almost entertaining in being written in superb prose enhanced by a clever wit.

Kay and Cyril, very happily married, resolve at the age of fifty, having witnessed the mostly unpleasant deaths of their parents, to painlessly die together once they are eighty.

Each chapter then relates what could possibly occur, although they have a clear plan….

Initially, they were firmly committed, especially Kay who suffered from worsening arthritis. Doubts started to niggle. Kay thought of all she would no longer have awareness of, from cyberspace to paper clips!  Brexit was a distraction.

Existence, after eighty years, for them, still remained a puzzle as to both purpose and meaning.  Things fail to go as planned. Cyril dies but Kay is left to live to a ripe old age of ninety-one!

The next option was to sell their valuable property in Lambeth, and live in a tower block with a daredevil attitude and zest for life, not wasting time or opportunity. Kay lives until ninety-two, but is then wiped out by a Man in a White Van!

In Chapter Three, on the final day, Kay has discovered her new confidence and eloquently argues in favour of Life. Complications arise and she desperately dashes out to retrieve a letter and in her haste in crossing a road, is wiped out by a Man in a White Van!

Cyril, begins to write his memoirs and suffers a stroke.  He endures a living death until he dies thirteen years later. Their three children pay him little attention. He had tried laboriously to spell out to ‘pull the plug’, but instruction was disregarded.

In another variation to their plight, the family is disgusted and leave Kay happily lost in her dementia. She and Cyril are imprisoned in a nightmarish care home with appalling conditions. At one stage, she has a more lucid phase and together they manage to escape disguised as Smurfs!

The threat of being sectioned greets them on ‘recapture’.

The possibilities that arise for them both are at times diverting, but the most entertaining is, by far, when they become immortal, thanks to the invention of a drug, Retrogenitox. After two years, it transforms old people into becoming splendid, radiant thirty-five-year-old versions of themselves. Available universally, the world is changed and, at first, the benefits are wide ranging and undreamt of – at last there is equality worldwide!

Problems emerge. Population hits over eleven billion. When anything is possible, nothing is desirable. People become depressed because there is nothing to worry about!!

The ultimate choice is to resort to cryogenics. This ends in shock when they emerge hundreds of years later, wizened and altered by freezer burn. Tall, intimidating beings who now people the earth, treat them with contempt and disdain.

So, it is with enormous relief that both decide to let life and death take their course. Alternatives sought prove to be disappointing if not shocking or disastrous.

Shriver’s latest book does not disappoint. It deals with an aspect of our existence which affects us all and is currently sharply in focus, with legislation being introduced to legalise assisted dying. Many avoid discussion of death, but her book fosters debate and careful thought, and while she exaggerates and resorts to farce on occasion, the book is a very palatable and essentially serious treatment of the issue of whether we should exert our power to end life when desired.

A heavy subject is made, dare I say, enjoyable by her deft and brilliant supposition of the complications associated with deciding to stay, or to go….

Should We Stay or Should We Go


by Lionel Shriver

Harper Collins

ISBN 978 00631 1890 4

$32.99; 288pp


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