Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Rinny Gremaud's first book, All the World's a Mall, masterfully translated from French by Luise von Flotow, takes us on a compelling journey into the realm of global consumerism. Weaving astute observations with personal reflections, Gremaud explores the absurdity of unchecked capitalism while interweaving her own transition as a child from South Korean society, which looked down on her mixed-race heritage and single mother, to a privileged life in affluent Swiss society under the care of an adoptive father.
The unusual premise of Gremaud's narrative is a month-long exploration of megalomaniacal shopping malls on three continents. From Canada's iconic West Edmonton Mall to emerging contenders in Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai and Casablanca, Gremaud tracks down those who manage these temples of globalisation, the workers who clean them and the shoppers who spend their days among the glass, steel and concrete of the behemoths.
In this sprawling mall universe, visitors can eat, sleep, swim, ski and take selfies amid grand fountains, ice statues, aquariums and even professional mermaids. Gremaud invites us to consider these phenomena in the context of their surrounding communities and economies. In Edmonton, the mall is a tourist attraction for locals and visitors, and an annual pilgrimage for families from distant northern communities to stock up for the year. In Casablanca, luxury prices contrast sharply with the surrounding slums, and even the middle class is reduced to window-shopping. Gremaud also explores the humble origins of the builders of these modern market towns of glass and concrete, recounting rags-to-riches stories, music to the ears of the most ardent believers in the 'American Dream.'
Gremaud's vivid and insightful prose reveals the ironies and contradictions of her travels, from the follies of investors to the inflated visitor numbers despite the growing threat of online shopping. Her emotional responses to global inequality, particularly in Dubai, where opulence coexists with the suffering of imported workers, make her a relatable and empathetic narrator.
While All the World's a Mall lampoons consumerism and takes jabs at the aesthetics of the architecture and the crassness of investors, the narrative maintains a respectful and thought-provoking tone for the most part. This is no easy feat, and the reader can feel the author struggling to keep her judgmentalism in check. The book is rich in social commentary, lucidly observing our own habits, but without mockery. Instead, the irony only reveals the inherent paradoxes of a consumer society. The despair Gremaud witnesses underlines the consequences of this absence of reason and leaves much to reflect on.
In this compelling travelogue, Gremaud enlightens us about shopping malls, their host countries and their investors, while challenging the critique of mass tourism. She appeals to our universal need for experience, fun and happiness, and asks us to ponder the relationship between consumption and satisfaction.
All the World's a Mall is published by the University of Alberta Press.