The Post-Birthday World – Lionel Shriver

The basic outline of ‘The Post-Birthday World‘ here is not unusual. Woman (Irina McGovern) in settled relationship is tempted to kiss an attractive, charismatic snooker player (Ramsey Acton). The novel unfolds in alternate chapters detailing the direction her life takes if, on the one hand, she resists the temptation, and on the other, she succumbs.

The author, Lionel Shriver also wrote the shocking novel and runaway literary success ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ which I read a few years ago, and it was on the strength of it that I purchased this one.

It’s a massive, 600 page tome, much too long, but its central idea is stated early on, in the story line where Irina resisted the temptation, it is said,

‘She had only been alerted to her own happiness by a narrow brush against an alternative future in which it is annihilated’ (pg 82).

By it’s end, in the opposite storyline we are told,

‘She has learned the hard way that there is no safety. That there never was any safety. So it is the illusion of safety that she misses, nothing more.’ (pg 589)

And this to me was the problem with this novel. I found it deeply cynical and cold, exampled for me in the fact that there was no lovemaking, only sex. Actually it was really only f**king according to the text. And I’m not sure I want to buy into an idea that you can only appreciate what goodness you enjoy in relationship by toying with its possible annihilation.

We are offered the scenario where Irina faces an inevitable choice between the steady and safe Lawrence and the exciting but dangerous Acton. The one leads to illusory security, predictability but professional frustration, the other to insecurity but great sex and professional success. Choose your poison, but you’ll always be haunted by what might have been.

When Shriver takes residence in the head of Irina, she writes confidently and often memorably. But boy, when she switches to dialogue she crashes and burns. There were times I was in the middle of what I imagine a Mills and Boon novel would be like. There is just no way people talk like this even in the midst of the thrill of new or illicit loves.

It’s an interesting read, certainly thought-provoking, but I’ll not be rushing back.

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