The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

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The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Irina might kiss her friend Ramsey, or might not. The resulting splits in her life story are detailed in this very intriguing blockbuster.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 600 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers Ltd
ISBN: 978-0007243419

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London, 1997. Due to their divorce, the annual occasion when Ramsey and Jude go for a meal for his birthday with their friends Irina and Lawrence has turned into an evening for just Ramsey and the other couple. It's never a brilliant night out - the conversation very much surrounding Lawrence's fanship of Ramsey's snooker career, and Irina's being sacked by Jude as the illustrator of her children's books is not much of a long-lasting conversation subject, but it surprisingly becomes a routine.

Until the year when Lawrence's work at a political think-tank takes him abroad for the anniversary. Irina and Ramsey make an evening of it, just the two of them, with sushi and sake prominent.

Later, back at his, the giving of a birthday gift becomes a bit out of the usual, with much kissing over the practice baize. Getting home the following day, Irina hates herself for all-but betraying her partner, but at the same time begins to see their kiss-less sex life as far too dull a routine. She spends more and more time with Ramsey, and less and less time civilly speaking to Lawrence.

OR, Irina gives a birthday kiss to Ramsey, goes home, welcomes her husband with open arms, and things progress from there. She recognises a door has closed to another life, but favours stability, and even wants to actually marry Lawrence after ten years of being together.

There are a lot of snooker references in this book, which won't spoil it for the non-fan, so here's another, although it applies more to billiards. Take a white ball, black ball, and red ball (well, Irina is half-Russian) and impact with your cue. The following ricochets and splintered angular paths are just what result in both the scenarios, which play out in this very entertaining novel in alternate chapters.

The differences between the two stories range from the small - either a chicken gets defrosted or it doesn't - to the large (Irina's weight varies quite quickly from one plot to another, and whole careers vary). You would have to hope the author who is to some extent telling the same events twice would never bore you with repetition, and thankfully, she doesn't. Sometimes dialogue seems to be cut and pasted from one world to another, but when that does happen it's always interestingly another person saying it.

I spent a long time wondering why the story started in 1997 - it seems for the first few hundred pages the only beneficiary of that is Germaine Greer, but the next six or seven years are loosely draped over the history we know, while forming a brace of stories that never have an unwelcome sentiment (irony, soapiness, etc).

The writing style is very good. When I read a hardback of my own I take the dust cover off, to keep things better preserved, and the clear white tome left me here is very apt. There is such a clarity in the writing - the sometimes brilliant turns of phrase so subtly dropped in (apart from the clanger where the illustrator "draws on her jacket" instead of putting it on), the crystal precision of the psychological characterisation. The vocabulary is on the large size - fungible I had to look up, and nothing ever behooves characters in the books I normally read. That wasn't too diverting - the characters are talented, intelligent people (even the working class sportsman has been made an MBE) and so the writing reflects this.

It's a large tome regardless of packaging. With six hundred pages you get a lot for your pennies, as it practically amounts to two novels - equally fine, plus all the interplay, shadows and connections between the two, which amount to a large discussion on fate, love, and the value of worrying about such things. The ultimate message might be another snooker link of my own - however hard a snooker player tries, he will never regroup the fifteen reds into their starting triangle. Instead, at the end of the frame, all the balls are destined for one of only six pockets.

Still, there is something stopping me giving the book a higher rating. It is a book you admire, rather than fall in love with. The characters are very well drawn, twice, but they didn't make me wish them into my life any further than reading the book once. The book went past very easily for its size, vocabulary and complexity, and I'm happy to be in this world where I spent twelve hours or whatever in its company than the one where I didn't, but it missed a vital spark perhaps.

I would still recommend The Post-Birthday World to people (unless put off by a fair bit of sexual content) interested in the latest hit Lionel Shriver, and/or a distinctive modern look at life and love. My thanks to the publishers for giving the bookbag a copy to review. We also have a review of The New Republic by Lionel Shriver.

Booklists.jpg The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver is in the Top Ten Tube Reads.

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