A few sentences into The Post-Birthday World, I stopped to watch some TV. Sometimes you just know a book is going to suck you in, and I figured it’d be in my best interest to get the DVR to a manageable capacity so it’d be able to withstand a few days without me.
Sure enough, the DVR is now rocking 82% and I’m too emotionally wrecked to deal with it after 500 pages in the mind of Lionel Shriver. The author of We Need to Talk About Kevin—which I LOVED, despite its rather tragic subject matter—has such an on-point grasp of the reality of human existence that I never seem to finish her novels particularly happy or sad, so much as resigned to the fact that all situations in life have good and bad, and few offer definitive answers or conclusions.
The Post-Birthday World is, in its way, an almost literal exploration of that reality. The novel follows Irina, a 30-something children’s book illustrator resigned to a lackluster marriage that claims in comfort and security what it lacks in passion. One night while her husband Lawrence is away on business, Irina goes out to dinner with Ramsey Acton, a mutual friend of theirs, and world-famous snooker player. (Although it is a big part of the plot, snooker—a British iteration of billiards that’s mad complicated—isn’t all that relevant to the book’s awesomeness.) After a few cocktails, Irina comes dangerously close to kissing Acton and from there, the novel splits in half, one trajectory following Irina’s life in a world where she did not kiss Ramsey, and the other a world where she did. The chapters alternate between these two universes, so that we as readers see what happens in the exact same increments of time, had Irina made either choice.
At its most basic, the style of Post-Birthday World makes it sound like a sophisticated choose-your-own-adventure novel, and I suppose in a way it is. But I would be remiss if I didn’t at least try to emphasize the sheer elegance of Shriver’s approach. Not only do the alternating chapters cover the same periods of time and certain parallel milestones (things like Irina’s nomination for an children’s book award, or the occurrence of September 11) but in many cases they contain the same phrases or observations, except noted or experienced by different characters depending on which universe we’re currently occupying. A criticism levied against an acquaintance might in one world be uttered by Irina and objected to by Lawrence, while in the other world, the same conversation might take place with their roles completely reversed.
The nuance of Shriver’s approach is hard to explain (by which I mean do justice), but suffice it to say that what emerges is an utterly riveting novel, where you’re not only eager to see what happens, but how things happen depending on which side of Irina’s Choice you’re exploring. That said, much as We Need to Talk About Kevin raised more questions than it offered answers, the overall assertion of The Post-Birthday World isn’t that one choice was right and the other was wrong. Rather, even when faced with a decision whose outcome has the power to radically alter one’s life, the truth is that either way there will be good and bad, gratitude and regret, affirmation and insecurity. Truly, the alternate title for this novel would be “Ambivalence: A Study.”
Although Post-Birthday World is only the second book I’ve read by Lionel Shriver, she is swiftly becoming one of my favorite authors. The quality of her writing is so impressive that I find myself rereading passages with regularity, if only to make sure I’ve appreciated their full impact. And yet in spite of her writing, which, however beautiful, is also dense and linguistically challenging, Shriver manages to create page-turners, books that keep you up at night pushing forward to the next chapter, and the next, until it’s 7 a.m. and you’re going to work on four hours of sleep. That combination of style and substance is the hallmark of great fiction, and I find myself excited at the prospect of another half-dozen Shriver novels whose spines I have yet to crack.
TITLE: The Post-Birthday World
AUTHOR: Lionel Shriver
PAGES: 517 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: We Need to Talk About Kevin, A Perfectly Good Family
SORTA LIKE: Zadie Smith meets Jonathan Franzen
FIRST LINE: “What began as a coincidence had crystallized into tradition: on the sixth of July, they would have dinner with Ramsey Acton on his birthday.”