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March 30, 2007

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

I get the feeling Lionel Shriver gets off on ruffling feathers. She’s the kind of woman who gives herself a man’s name, runs away to Belfast, writes books that aren’t easy to market, and finds fame with a book about a teenage murderer. In her post-Orange Prize world, she writes controversial editorials about politics, abortion, childlessness, and continues to rankle. To be honest, in 2005 when I first became aware of Shriver, I had mixed feelings about her. But then I read We Need to Talk About Kevin, and my resistance went out the window. Lionel Shriver can really tell a story. She is blunt and doesn’t shy from offense, but I’ll read anything she’s writing, and the odds are that I’ll like it.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was Lionel Shriver’s seventh book. None of its predecessors had been successful; Kevin itself– brutal, disturbing and horrifying– had a hard time finding a publisher. The book was sold partly on sensation, I think, but the story was stunningly told. I remember being interrupted during the final twist, and refusing to put the book down. Stuart read the book right after me, and I could hardly speak to him for fear of spoiling the ending, but I was dying to talk about it. We Need to Talk About Kevin was the most underrated overrated book I’ve ever encountered, and any writer would have a hard time following it up. And it was not as though Shriver was in the habit of writing sensation thriller-esque popular fiction. Though most of her earlier books are out of print, I did get my hands on a copy of her first novel The Female of the Species. A wonderful read, but quite unlike Kevin, and like Shriver herself, it seems, more than a bit odd.

So what was she to do next? I’ve read interviews from a year or two ago with Shriver acknowledging that some readers were bound to be disappointed in her next effort. Topping We Need to Talk About Kevin would be next to impossible, and with her new book The Post-Birthday World one gets the sense that she didn’t even try. Instead Lionel Shriver sat down and wrote another book, a completely different one, but once again a good one.

The Post-Birthday World seems like a startling deviation from Kevin but it’s not so much in comparison with Shriver’s early work. Concerned with women’s lives, emotions, relationships, sexuality. Fixated on sport, but snooker in this case in place of tennis (as in The Female of the Species and Double Fault). And the new book is really not so far from Kevin either– so much of that story was concerned with the dynamic between Kevin’s parents, and The Post-Birthday World examines intimacy in a similar way.

The Post-Birthday World is two books in one. Irina McGovern is an American established in London, a children’s book illustrator, safely ensconced in a relationship with the dependable Lawrence. When she finds herself tempted to kiss their friend Ramsay– a dashing geezer (in the British sense), a snooker champion no less– she’s faced with a choice. And at that instant, Shriver’s narrative breaks into two and we find out what happens if Irina does or if she doesn’t.

The two narratives operate in alternating chapaters, each unaware of the other. And it works; I didn’t find myself rooting for one Irina more than the other, or rushing through one alternate universe to get to the better one. Though the two narratives function separately, they do operate together illustrating the vastly different trajectories a life can take. Certain objects exist in both worlds, certain words are echoed. The two stories demonstrate that there is no such thing as parallel lives, and that life is too complicated for such a concept. Each of Irina’s decisions have different consequences, but not for the reasons you might expect. Life isn’t a chain reaction so much as a mammoth muddle, and Irina has to find her way through the mess, no matter where she’s headed. She illustrates a children’s book with a similar premise, which allows Shriver some explanation of her own intentions. Irina explains, “The idea is that you don’t have only one destiny…whichever direction you go, there are going to be upsides and downsides. You’re dealing with a set of trade-offs, and not one perfect course in comparison to which all others are crap… In both, everything is all right, really. Everything is all right.”

My one criticism was Shriver’s overuse of some words that read conspicuously to me. The number of items which were “sumptuous” grew tiresome, as did the many “junctures” at which Irina found herself. I had never heard of “folderol” before, but Irina encountered an awful lot of it.

Where Shriver’s writing excels is with dialogue in particular. Irina’s exchanges with Lawrence and Ramsay are brilliant, quick, and demonstrate the differences in logic between characters. I also enjoyed the fullness of her characters’ world (which seems a mark of her fiction). The cultures of snooker and children’s book publishing are given full consideration, and as Lawrence is a terrorism expert for a think tank, discussions of world events are substantial (I noticed that many of Lawrence’s opinions echo those Shriver has voiced in editorials such as this one). The lives in The Post-Birthday World are examined from all angles, so richly and wholly. This is fiction thoroughly engaged with the world in which it takes place.

This is good fiction: words, symbols, stories, lives.

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