….You Think You Have Time”

This quote is often attributed to The Buddha.  But as this article highlights, it is actually an interpretation of The Buddha’s teachings, perhaps derived from a quote by Carlos Castanena.

In any event, it is the perfect sub-heading for Lionel Shriver’s book So Much For That.

Published in 2010, I have had a copy of this book on my shelves for many years.  I have even started it a few times.  I am not sure why it took a hold this time around.  Maybe it was a case of “when the student is ready, the master appears” – another ‘fake Buddha quote’!  But having started, I could not put it down.

Don’t get me wrong – this is by no means an easy read.  It is not a page turner in the conventional sense.  Anyone familiar with Shriver’s work will perhaps understand how she can lure in the reader, even unwillingly.  Those who may have read We Need To Talk About Kevin will know how gothic her writing can be – ‘behind the sofa’ reading in some cases.

So Much For That is not this kind of read, however.  It is about normal people going about their everyday lives, coping with every day, albeit extreme problems.  The lure for the reader comes through the realisation that you could find yourselves with a version of their difficulties at any moment.  Indeed some of my friends have been in similar situations (albeit with the benefit of the UK National Health Service, thank heavens); I winced through the whole book on their behalf and forced myself not to look away.

The story focuses on Shepherd Knacker, who dreams of escaping from the drudgery of American life with his family to somewhere more exotic.  Having sold his firm, however, he has not been able to make the leap, and early on the book, we find that he is unlikely to be able to do so because he needs to continue to work to retain his employee health insurance – we discover that his wife, Glynis has a very serious form of cancer.  Health insurance in America being what it is, Shepherd finds that his plan does not cover his wife’s specialist treatments and so he unquestioningly uses his savings to cover the costs.

Although the main theme of the book is ostensibly about health care provision in the USA, there are many, much more important threads running alongside and underneath: how to face serious illness and the prospect of one’s own death and the loss of one’s partner; the importance of money, and money verses quality of life – in other words, how much money does one need to have a good quality of life; what is important in life; is there any point having money if the method of earning it makes you miserable and prevents you from spending time with those you love.

It sounds as if this is a bleak book to read.  It depends on your point of view.  I found it to be extremely compelling, and in the end hugely emotional.  Not so much because of what happens to the characters, although I was pleased to have read the story.  No – I was deeply affected by the lessons one can draw for one’s own life.  We all know intrinsically about the importance of living life to the full; living in the moment; making the most of what we have.  But a novel like this, with its calm, relentless style, helps one to realise that there is not a minute to lose because we never know what is around the corner.

“There is no wealth but life.”
John Ruskin