Book review

Have patience with the first chapter of Lionel Shriver’s new novel, “Should We Stay or Should We Go,” in which British husband and wife Kay and Cyril Wilkinson consider suicide at age 80 to escape the indignities of old age.

As they go over the pros and cons, they sound less like characters than authorial mouthpieces. But their exchange is actually a canny setup for a wildly inventive and sometimes hilarious novel on a sober subject: When is the best time to die? When you’re still in command of your faculties? Or when you’re so far gone that the choice is entirely out of your hands?

The idea of the suicide pact arises in 1991 after Cyril, a National Health Service doctor, and Kay, an NHS nurse, get home from the funeral for Kay’s father, who died from Alzheimer’s. The length and intensity of his illness have left Kay unable to feel anything, not even exhausted relief, about his passing.

“My father suffered a good four years of steady deterioration, followed by a solid 10 of nothing but degradation,” she says to Cyril. “He should have died when he was first diagnosed. Then I could have come home from his funeral and cried my eyes out.”

Still, she’s not on board with Cyril’s suicide-at-80 idea at first — especially since one of his main arguments is that their suicides would save the NHS a ton of the unnecessary expense that comes with a prolonged demise. Six months later, however, when Kay’s widowed mother also starts showing signs of serious cognitive impairment, she reverses course: “That pact of yours, my dear? … I’m all in.”

Over the next 12 chapters, Shriver plays out the Wilkinsons’ alternatives from every angle, introducing a whole new wrinkle on their choices and their fates every time. In the process, she dabbles in family psychodrama, futuristic fantasy, “Cuckoo’s Nest” nightmares and utopian idylls.

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She also creates a composite portrait of a married couple and their three children that, for all its contradictions, hangs together with glorious plausibility. Indeed, by paying as much attention to what Kay or Cyril don’t do in some scenarios, she digs into corners of their characters that no single account of “what happened” could ever reveal. Twelve different stories unfold — and you need all 12.

Each starts in 2020 or thereabouts. Cyril is already 80; Kay’s 80th birthday is coming up fast. They’re both in pretty good shape. Thanks to Cyril’s job, they have what they need to carry out a painless death. But are they really going to go through with it?

The answers are “No,” “Yes,” “Cyril but not Kay,” “Kay but not Cyril,” and some outcomes that can only be described as, “Whoops!” (At one point, cryogenics are involved.)

Kay agrees that Cyril sounds “frightfully reasonable” as he reminds her that their health will likely take nosedive within a decade. “But,” she says, “I can’t overcome a certain perplexity that here I am contemplating suicide … in a state of relative contentment.”

Another wrinkle: The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down and the possibility of an orderly exit with thoughtfully orchestrated in-person farewells to their children (who have no clue about their plans) is suddenly verboten. The whole family diligently complies with quarantine lockdown orders. In Cyril and Kay’s case, though, they wonder why: “Avoiding fatal infection in order to commit suicide was inconsistent to say the least.”

Then there’s the money question. In some chapters, they’ve blown all their savings on trips to exotic locations that Kay is eager to visit (Cyril tags along grudgingly). In others, their finances are in good shape. In still others, their most unscrupulous child gains control of their affairs — or is furious when he founds out there’s nothing left of the inheritance he was expecting. COVID-19 leads to catastrophe in some versions of their story. In others it’s no big deal.

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It’s worth noting here that Shriver, in her column for The Spectator, has decried the British authorities’ “steady diet of Covid hysteria, which amounts to government-sponsored terrorism.” Economic shutdown, she argues, has been far more damaging to Britain than COVID-19 itself.

That makes one narrative permutation — in which Kay upbraids Cyril for being so downcast by the coronavirus pandemic’s harm to the British economy — particularly tart. “Please tell me you’re not listening to that Shriver woman,” she says. “She’s a hysteric. And so annoyingly smug, as if she wants civilization to collapse, just so she can be proved right.”

Shriver may be a contrarian — but she has a sense of humor about it. More to the point, she never lets her politics interfere with the sheer zest of her imagination.

The fugue-like pleasures of the novel, as key passages and images recur in ever-shifting patterns with ever-differing outcomes, are intense. That makes “Should We Stay or Should We Go” a delight to read — even as it leaves you wondering if maybe now is the right time to get hold of a lethal cocktail.

Lionel Shriver, Harper, 266 pp., $26.99

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