Lionel Shriver is never afraid to get down into the muck of humanity and ask the hard questions. Weight gain, overpopulation, school shootings, exercise addiction – every book I’ve read of hers has conjured up strong and uncomfortable emotions. Yet I found The Post-Birthday World to be uncomfortable in a slightly different way, as it examines a quieter and more domestic question of ‘what if?’.
The protagonist of this tale, Irina, is a 40-something USA expat living with her long-term partner in London. She is a children’s book illustrator and has an annual tradition of dining with her partner’s friend, Ramsay, each year on his birthday.
Shriver herself describes the story as follows:
Ensconced in a long-term and hitherto contented relationship, at the end of the first chapter my protagonist Irina is alarmingly drawn to kissing another man. Thereafter, the narrative splits into two parallel universes: the one in which she gave into temptation, and the one in which she remained faithful to her partner and demurred.
Every love triangle in history has examined this dilemma. Should Irina choose to stay with the safe, ‘good’ guy, or risk it all with the wild, unknown ‘bad’ guy. But of course, people are not black and white and the two men that Irina vacillates between here are great examples of this.
This ‘sliding doors’ novel delves into the consequences for Irina that all flow from leaning in for a single kiss, or resisting.
If Irina pulls back, we see how the next five years of her life continues to unfold with Lawrence – a stodgy, routine-driven, intellectual who is riddled with faults and foibles but also redeeming qualities. He is at once churlish, stingy, mercurial, supportive, wise, and dryly funny.
If Irina leans in, we see what happens after she commences an affair with a lithe and loutish professional snooker player, Ramsay. He is carefree, impulsive, and erotic. He spends most of his time travelling the world snooker tournament circuit, chasing the elusive world championship title and living the high life.
One of the past parts of this novel is that it is not content to merely examine Irina’s choice on that critical night, but also the choices subsequently made by these two men. As the story flips back and forth between them, familiar story beats are presented from each separate yet related timeline.
It was very well constructed and an engaging read. You can really tell that Shriver wanted to do justice to this examination of contrast between the two men, and how they changed Irina. This is not just a story about choice, but an in-depth study of the repercussions of Irina’s decision.
5 slightly torn white blouses out of 5.