Property: Stories Between Two Novellas
A few days ago my better half, Keith, sent me a text containing the word “foofaraw.” Now Keith is not a professional wordsmith, but he’s got a good vocabulary and he’s always eager to learn new words or find out interesting tidbits about words. So I wasn’t overly surprised to see him use a word in a text that even I, an editor, had never seen written down before (although I knew what it meant). Nor was I surprised that Keith had spelled the word in such a funny way. Keith isn’t a good speller, and his phone doesn’t help. It either autocorrects with something absurd, or offers Keith no suggestions that “look right” whatsoever.
Not wanting to make a big foofaraw about the spelling of this rarely-used (I thought) word, I didn’t send a mocking reply to Keith’s text. I was too lazy to look it up in a dictionary and forgot all about it.
So imagine my surprise when yesterday, while avidly reading a story in my new favourite author Lionel Shriver’s latest collection, I see the word “foofaraw”! Spelled just like that! And I had had this vague notion that it was a French-derived word that doubtless started with the letters F-O-U, like coup de foudre (bolt from the blue, fall in love) or rendre fou (drive crazy).
Belatedly, I looked up “foofaraw” in my trusty Canadian Oxford Dictionary, and sure enough, there it was, spelled Keith’s way, with a brief definition (fuss, commotion, disturbance) and, unusually for the COD, the words “origin unknown”!
To me it seemed a bit of a coup de foudre that I would encounter this word twice within a few days after being ignorant of its appearance my whole life. Not for the first time, I pondered the curious nature of coincidences. In part I think they happen because of what both our conscious and unconscious minds are being attentive to.
After all this, I have to say that my main reason for writing this post is to rave about the book I’m reading. Its full title is Property: Stories Between Two Novellas, and it is assembled exactly as it says. This book was my introduction to American journalist Lionel Shriver. She is best known for her international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin, but I was pleased to see that she has written several other novels that I can look forward to reading.
The stories in Property are clever, funny, and at times shocking or uncomfortably creepy. They are connected thematically by their investigations into what “property” means and how it can define and affect us. Property can refer to real estate, and it can also refer to anything that we own. Many of the stories here suggest that our property can own us. A couple of the stories veer into the supernatural as buildings seem to become capable of expressing malevolent human emotions in physical ways.
Several stories extend the meaning of possessiveness beyond attachment to houses or other property to people’s attachment to their own ideas about righteousness and fairness. Many of Shriver’s characters have to give up not just property or possessions, but some of their most-clung-to ideals or resentments. Part of the fun of reading this collection, though, is that amongst the dark or shocking endings there are surprise happy endings, too.