‘The Post-Birthday World’ by Lionel Shriver tells the story (or stories) of Irina McGovern, a children’s book illustrator in her early forties living in London with her partner of nearly ten years, Lawrence Trainer, a fellow American expatriate. When Irina finds herself alone with Ramsey Acton, a famous snooker player, her life takes diverging paths in alternate chapters where in one life, she starts a new relationship with Ramsey and in another life, she stays loyal to Lawrence.
I loved both Shriver’s Orange Prize-winning ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and her latest novel ‘Big Brother‘ which I reviewed earlier this year. In ‘The Post-Birthday World’, Shriver turns more towards romance and her microscopic observations about human behaviour and relationships are as terrifyingly perceptive as ever. There are clever parallels between the two routes of Irina’s life such as the way in which the characters react to the same topics of conversation or how events such as Irina’s visits home for Christmas pan out in different ways.
I’m not a member of a book group but I’m sure ‘The Post-Birthday World’ would generate an interesting discussion about the characters. Both Lawrence and Ramsey have their emotional flaws and according to Shriver, this is for the simple reason that “romantic prospects are always flawed in real life”. Interestingly, Shriver has said that “readers seem to divide straight down the middle regarding which man they prefer” but claims that when she is asked whether she prefers Lawrence or Ramsey, she says “I am always coy. I adore them both.” Personally, I disliked Lawrence and Ramsey more or less equally and it seemed inevitable quite early on that Irina would be unhappy for the majority of both scenarios. While the ending of ‘The Post-Birthday World’ isn’t as shocking as those of ‘Big Brother’ and ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, it is cleverly ambiguous in a satisfying way.
The parallel universe structure with diverging paths reminiscent of the film ‘Sliding Doors’ isn’t completely new, but ‘The Post-Birthday World’ is a highly imaginative take on the concept. Although those who enjoyed ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ aren’t guaranteed to enjoy it due to the very different subject matter, I would recommend ‘The Post-Birthday World’ to both Shriver’s existing fans as well as to those who are new to her work.