The Post-Birthday World
by Lionel Shriver
I have to try very hard to separate the prose of this book from its politics – and those of its author – because I quite liked the book but it was decidedly tainted for me by the occasional political comment. There was one short section of what can only be described as lies about the NHS that got me so mad I very seriously considered stopping reading then and there, despite it being more than 400 pages in.
Politics aside, this is an enjoyable enough, reasonably well written story that kept me interested and got me looking at my own life through a new filter, which is generally a good sign. I don’t find its central conceit as mindblowingly original as those reviewers quoted on the cover (it is, after all, straight out of Sliding Doors, a film I’ve watched many many times) but it is done well and I like that Shriver didn’t make obvious choices but kept it subtle.
Irina and Lawrence are an American ex-pat couple living a comfortable, if bland, life together in London. After nine years, and now in their 40s, they are very much set in their ways and their future seems obvious. But one night, Irina finds herself unexpectedly attracted to another man almost the opposite of Lawrence. Whether or not she kisses Ramsey is the question on which the rest of the book turns – because both answers are given, with two stories told from that point on.
“Love having come to her neither easily nor early, Irina accepted the fact that any minor contribution she might make to human affairs would have nothing to do with unprecedented achievement in courtship…No modern-day Shakespeare would squander his eloquence on the ordinary happiness – if there is such a thing – that percolated within a modest flat in Borough through the 1990s.”
Ramsey is a professional snooker player, a minor celebrity, lavish with his cash and his emotions. Lawrence is a political researcher, reserved and articulate. Where Ramsey drinks and smokes to excess, Lawrence disapproves of even small amounts of both. Lawrence is a little scruffy, while Ramsey is a natty dresser. Initially, it seems that Irina’s life with one man or the other couldn’t be more different.
But it gradually becomes clear that either Irina has a type or she herself has an effect on those around her. Lawrence is educated and well-informed, but can be a bit of a bore on the subject of politics, which he inevitably steers any conversation towards. Ramsey dropped out of school young and is really only interested in talking snooker. Both men are self-involved and career-obsessed. But they also have moments of great tenderness.
“They had already developed the long, thick silences of lovers – those characteristic pauses whose laden dead air has to carry everything that has nothing to do with words. Lovers communicate not inside sentences but between them. Passion lurks within interstice. It is grouting rather than bricks.”
There are some fun moments when the two storylines almost converge, and the fact that the storylines aren’t that different chimes with my own sense that the course of our lives is not open to every possibility but is actually a very narrow set of options created by who we are. I like that neither man is clearly “better”, even if I know which one I would more likely be attracted to, and I like that Irina herself isn’t perfect in either storyline.
However, I’m not interested in snooker, I do object to snide comments about “lefties” (particular when they come from a third-person narrator, not a character) and ultimately Irina herself was too pathetic and un-self-aware for me to really invest in her story (or stories). After having similar reservations with Double Fault, I think I might not give Shriver another go.
Published 2007 by HarperCollins.
Source: Secondhand bookshop (not sure which one).