Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 600 pages; 2007.
In Lionel Shriver‘s astonishingly profound novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the American-born London-based author explored the notion of nature versus nurture. It divided readers across the world and became the quintessential book group book, if only because its content stimulated so much discussion. If a student went on a killing spree, was the mother to blame? Or had he simply been born evil?
In her long-awaited follow-up, The Post-Birthday World, Shriver treads less controversial ground but doesn’t shy away from exploring a theme that is likely to generate a similar amount of discussion: is life pre-ordained or do we need to take responsibility for our actions? Is sex or companionship more important in a relationship? And is there such a thing as a perfect partner?
In this accomplished and incredibly well plotted novel we meet Irina McGovern, a children’s book illustrator, who is an expat American living in South London. Every July 6 Irina and her long-term partner, Lawrence, meet an acquaintance, Ramsey Acton, who is a rich and famous snooker player, to celebrate his birthday. It is a once-a-year rendezvous that Irina usually tries to wriggle out of. The one year that Lawrence can’t make it due to a business trip, Irina is left to entertain Ramsey on her own. It is on this particular evening that Irina’s comfortable, if occasionally dull life, cleaves in two.
And this is where Shriver has fun exploring the what ifs. What if Irina kisses Ramsey on this night? And what if she decides to resist temptation?
The Post-Birthday World charts Irina’s life using a parallel universe structure, one in which she chooses to run off with the wild and impetuous Ramsey and the other in which she stays with her dependable, intellectual partner Lawrence. These two worlds are so diametrically opposed — the seedy on-the-road life of the professional snooker player and the closeted, safe and cerebral existence of an academic — that Irina’s decision in anything but a light one. Does she settle for Lawrence’s seeming unwillingness to experiment in bed (he won’t even kiss her) or does she seek the sexual thrills that Ramsey offers? Does she maintain the cosy homelife she shares with Lawrence — who won’t marry her — or does she embark on a steamy affair that may ultimately end in wedlock?
Irina’s two lives are told in alternate chapters. I initially found this confusing, but once I understood the structure of the book I found that it lent each story an extra depth. This is because much of the dialogue in each “universe” is repeated, although the words don’t necessarily fall out of the same mouths. I can only imagine how much hard work went into plotting and planning this extraordinary novel.
As ever Shriver’s prose is forthright and incisive. The characterisation is superb. Irina is especially compelling, if only because she seems very human — and self-absorbed — and is never quite sure whether she should follow her head or follow her heart.
I loved the setting. The London described in these pages is one I know well (I work in South London), so I had fun spotting the familiar landmarks. And Shriver’s descriptions of snooker, a sport that is peculiarly English, are spot-on. It was a brave decision for an American to write about it, but she handles it with aplomb, even if some of the passages explaining the sport’s history seemed a little laboured.
Unfortunately, Ramsey’s dialect, a kind of contrived Cockney-speak, doesn’t always ring true — he uses words that don’t fit, such as gobshite (which is Irish) and pet (which is from the North) — that suggest Shriver, an American, hasn’t come to terms with native English, or is playing a much cleverer game in which Ramsey is not all that he appears to be. Either way, I found his idiosyncratic speech grated throughout much of the book.
Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed The Post-Birthday World, ripping through its 600 weighty pages in a little under two weeks. It’s a fascinating account of one woman’s personal growth as she learns that both men in her life are good people with character flaws and that no matter who you choose there will always be ups and downs. The ultimate moral of this book is that life is what you make of it. No more, no less.
PS> If you want to know more about snooker, can I suggest you read The Hurricane: The Turbulent Life and Times of Alex Higgins by Bill Burrows. It provides a fascinating glimpse into one of the sport’s most controversial characters.
11 thoughts on “‘The Post-Birthday World’ by Lionel Shriver”
Oh dear, I totally disagree. I thought this was an awful novel and now I am wondering how she managed to write a book as great as Kevin.
The way Ramsay spoke was completely unconvincing and kept making me cringe, and her writing about snooker made me snigger.
I was not a believer in Shriver’s idea of how Irina’s life would play out. It seemed to me that reality would be somewhere closer to the middle of her two extremes. That only lasted for the first split chapter. After that, I was hooked. This book was really well written and I was quick to pass my copy along to anyone who I thought could appreciate it.
Obviously a book you either love or hate, by the sound of things!
Frank Wilson has an interesting post on books that evoke strong reactions, though in this case about THE ROAD:
Lee, thanks for the link. An interesting piece. I very much enjoyed The Road, although I had considered giving up on it about half way through because I thought it was quite repetitive. But when I twigged that the repetitiveness was a kind of rhythm that echoed the character’s lives I began to appreciate McCarthy’s skill as a writer and began to enjoy the book more and more.
The Post-Birthday World resonated with me on a number of levels — some of which are too personal to go into — which is why I enjoyed the book so much. I think any novel that is 600 pages long and can hold my attention when I have so much else going on in my life is worthy of praise.
I do want to read it, but you are well aware of the problem – the height of the TBR pile!
I am starting this later today. I so hope I enjoy it!
There’s a good overview of the reaction to this book on the Times Online — and Reading Matters gets namechecked!
I must say that I wouldn’t think of giving another one of Lionel Shriver’s books a chance. I read “Kevin” and found it about 150 pages too long. It was filled with flowery, gaudy language. Although intelligent, her sentences were an average of three lines long in attempt to say something simple. I often realized that after several pages, I was still reading the same complaint. I found myself daydreaming halfway through each sentence wondering how she (Shriver) became so angry. There is intelligent vocabulary and then there is Shriver’s need to prove she is smart in each individual line. A truly gifted writer need not force such language. I am terrified for anyone who may ever need or turn to Shriver for help or support as Eva was a creation of hers and as we all know, fiction is never purely that. I forced my way through 112 pages of “Kevin” before discarding it in disgust due to its frigid main character, all the while growing more and more concerned that Shriver has a womb. Perhaps her distaste for the term feminist simply stems from the fact that feminine is its root? Her adoption of a male name suggests otherwise to everything she claims in her interviews as someone as cocky and self assured as Shriver seems to be, I would think she would be proud to represent the success she has had under her given female name. I pity her need to morph into her environment and be something she is not. I also despise her need to flaunt her experiences as if she were the only one to ever travel. I have traveled extensively, yet do not feel the need to abandon my roots altogether and speak down to those who have not. Most of all, I am curious as to who would have chosen to spend their life with such a cold, condescending, long winded woman.
Lauren, what a pity you didn’t appreciate “Kevin” — I thought it was a profound read and one that made me reassess my own views on motherhood.
I think you are being slightly unfair to Shriver by assuming that the character Eva is a thinly veiled version of herself. It’s fiction. I realise some authors base characters on their own experiences, opinions etc, but you seem completely convinced that Eva is actually Shiver, and I simply don’t think you can make that assumption.
Re: the overwinded sentences. Do you not think that is simply a reflection of Eva’s character (her “voice” if you will) rather than the author’s “need to prove she is smart in each individual line”?
Re: “her need to flaunt her experiences as if she were the only one to ever travel” — once again you seem to be mistaking Eva, the character, with Shriver, the writer.
I have to say “Kevin” was one of the best books I read this year, I was recommended “Post Birthday World ” by a colleague,and although different and the subject matter perhaps not so profound,it resonated deeply with me.Unlike several reviewers I was left in absolutely no doubt over which course I would have taken (not necessarily the right one for Irina!)The important thing is to make the choice-I can think of three people close to me in that situation just letting time tick away…