There comes a moment in many people’s lives when the safe contentment of a long-term relationship is challenged and disrupted by the temptation of someone else. Whether to act on it or not is a hoary topic that has been batted back and forth across countless agony aunt pages and glasses of pinot grigio, but it is one that Lionel Shriver has brought freshly to life in The Post-birthday World.
The birthday in question is that of Ramsay Acton, snooker star, and it is celebrated every year with his wife Jude and her friend Irina and partner Lawrence. The novel is told from Irina’s point of view. One year, after Jude and Ramsay have separated, Lawrence is detained by business and Irina and Ramsay mark his birthday alone. At the end of the evening, they are tempted to kiss, and the novel explores, Sliding Doors-style, the two possible outcomes. In one, Irina and Ramsay kiss and a passionate affair begins – in the other, they resist, and Irina returns to Lawrence. The twin plots continue in simultaneous chapters that become increasingly intertwined as Shriver plays with the concepts of fate and inevitability.
The split chapters take some getting used to, but it is an intriguing device that grows ever more complex. Not only are entire scenes, such as the climactic snooker tournament, enacted twice, but motifs and fragments of prose appear in both storylines – in one, Irina has left Lawrence and he runs after her, fretting about her inadequate jacket, in the next chapter, they are uneasily still together, and it is she who runs after him with a better coat. The same phrase chimes in each chapter: “You’re not dressed for this!”.
These details are what make Irina and Lawrence’s dilemma so claustrophically convincing: real relationships are not performed on windswept moors, but bump against squabbles about the TV remote and how one of you likes the toast. It is the storyline of the affair I found less believable, simply because Ramsay, until a few twists in the denouement, seemed to me a facsimile of a character, the stereotypical un-literate but sexy bit of rough. Shriver seems to have hit a false note with his dialect, which admittedly he has adopted as a middle-class boy turned Cockney geezer snooker player, but off-puttingly it makes any conversations sound like Irina is having a heart-to-heart with Dick van Dyke: “I won’t be treated like a bauble by a bird who’s snug as a bug with another bloke” and even “I watch buff birds strut the pavement, first thing goes through my head ain’t ‘Blimey, love a bit o’ that, ‘ey!’”!
Lawrence himself is something of a stereotype too: middle class, intellectual, emotionally inept, sexually uptight and bossily unappealing: “Irina wasn’t accustomed to talking so much. Early in that speech Lawrence would have interrupted that she had made her point, so enough already.”
Perhaps Shriver’s point, as she summarises so succinctly in the prefacing quote, is: “Nobody’s perfect”. Neither man is 100% right for Irina, and as she puts it: “whichever a woman ends up with, she’ll wonder if she wouldn’t rather have the other”. This novel explores that ‘wondering’, the way choice and risk can change a life, and also whether some things are just inevitable. It is also an intricate investigation into the English class system, aging, sexuality and the whole structure of marriage.
The Post-birthday World is much too long and verbose at 600 pages, and needs a severe amount of editing. Also Irina is so buffeted by passion and panic in one relationship, and by an increasing sense of unease in the other, that her character is often subsumed by her circumstances.
However the central conceit is an interesting way of dealing with a situation that has occupied mankind since Eve and the apple, and it struck sharply with me.