Tuesday, 11 January 2011
The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
Irina McGovern, an American living in London is in a solid, stable relationship with Lawrence, also American, when suddenly she feels an irresistible pull to another man, and is overcome with a strong desire to kiss this man, a joint friend of her and Lawrence. That is how chapter one finishes, and from that point onwards the book veers off in two opposite directions and covers Irina’s life over the next five years in both circumstances. There is the thread where she submitted and kissed him and conversely, an alternate reality where she resisted and didn’t kiss him.
At the start of the story, Irina is reasonably happy and content in her relationship with Lawrence. She has moments were she wonders whether it is right, but the companionable, peaceful home life they have is generally all she wants out of life. A children’s book illustrator, she spends her days working and indulging her other passion, cooking and baking, for a very appreciative Lawrence. The other man is Ramsey Acton, a world famous snooker player, who comes complete with the income, attitude and lifestyle of a major player in the sports world. On the surface these two men couldn’t be more different. Lawrence earns good money, but they are cautious with it, and having an alcoholic mother has left him vehemently opposed to regular drinking, or being drunk under any circumstances Ramsey on the other hand likes a drink, and splashes his cash on good food and wine whenever the opportunity arises. Lawrence is a terrorism expert, who works in a think tank so converses about politics and current affairs regularly. Ramsey has no real interest in anything but snooker. Without giving too much away, in one thread Irina leaves Lawrence for Ramsey, and in the other, she stays with Lawrence and the novel juxtaposes the two opposing possibilities of Irina’s life.
It’s an intriguing, if simple idea, but what makes this book so special is the way it is done. The chapters are written so that a conversation may appear word for word in both strands of Irina’s story, although the emphasis may be totally different or the conversation is between two different people. It is not only conversations, but events that occur in both threads, although the outcomes can be totally different dependent on which reality we are in. Even a simple trip to the supermarket with her partner (whichever one) turns out totally differently. Relationships with friends, parents and colleagues are all juxtaposed with slightly different outcomes dependent on which reality we are following. The parallels don’t stop with the small things either. The biggest events in each strand are tuned on their heads to, all be it at different ends of the respective stories.
It made for a brilliant story, and a thought provoking read. I can’t imagine there are many people that haven’t wondered what would have happened in a given situation if they’d reacted differently, said something different, or done something differently. What we see Irina do is go through a series of trade-offs. Some decisions don’t pan out the way you want, or intend, but there are other things that are beneficial because of that decision. She obviously doesn’t see this, because she is only living one life at a time, but as readers we see her trade offs and compromises in her life (either one), and this can only be seen by seeing both lives. I wouldn’t work as a linear narrative, because as readers we would also be thinking what if?.
As I mentioned earlier, it was thought provoking for me on a much more personal level too. At eighteen, I left a Lawrence (that really is his name), for a Ramsey type character, but sixteen years later, that same Lawrence is back in my life, and all the little things that irritated me enough to leave him, are what I love about him now. Its odd, and this book expands slightly on thoughts I’d been having anyway about what would have happened if I’d have stayed then. Would it have all been rosy, did we both need to go our separate ways and grow up, world my life be totally different now, would it be better, worse or just different. Not having the luxury of seeing my alternative reality, I’ll never know, but all I can say is that I loved this book, and it was definitely right book, right time!