Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

It’s a familiar plotline, the ‘what if?’ The exploration of a story of parallel life courses that evolved from an original singular course at one particular point in time because of a crucial ‘life-changing’ decision.

Lionel Shriver has once again written a book I hated but couldn’t put down. Well, actually towards the end I almost did put it down, but thought no, I’ve come this far, must push on. I don’t necessarily feel that reading this book a waste of my time, but I am glad I’ve finished it. The characters, in usual Shriver style, are horrible and completely unlikeable. I’ve read reviews that call her characters ‘complicated’. Yep, fair enough, but why do they also have to be so horrible? This will most likely be the last of Shriver’s book I read.

Irina McGovern is an American woman in her early 40s living in London with her partner Lawrence, who is also American and in his 40s. Their relationship is one of comfortable stability. They’ve been together for 10 years and have their daily routine down pat. Lawrence goes out to work in the mornings in his job as terrorism research analyst (or something like that) and Irina stays home to work on children’s book illustrations. When Lawrence comes home they have a bowl of popcorn and watch tv. Then Irina cooks dinner and they eat together, while watching tv. Then they go to bed and sometimes have sex (about 3 or 4 times a week apparently). The sex, by the sounds of it, is dreadful. They have got into a pattern where they have sex the same way every time—from behind, in bed, in the dark. (Sorry for the gory details, but sex is a pretty major focus in this book...) For Irina, this is a source of sadness because they never look into each other’s eyes while making love. But she also seems to be happy with it because it’s regular and it’s happening (there’s that ‘complicated character’ for ya). To make things worse they don’t kiss. Lawrence hasn’t kissed Irina on her lips for years and when Irina attempted, Lawrence balked. Now this is a little unbelievable. It’s fucked up. I can’t actually believe relationships like this exist. But there’s a reason this sounds so dire. It’s so her relationship with Ramsey (the parallel plot) can be written in the other extreme (heaps of hot sex and mouth kissing and passionate arguments that end in more hot sex blah blah blah). And this is one of the major flaws of this book. The differences between the parallel worlds are delivered to us in earth movers and dumped heavily and loudly at our feet. There is no nuance or sensitivity in this. Shriver delivers her message with as much sensitivity as a sledgehammer.

Ramsey Acton is the husband of Jude, who writes the books that Irina illustrates. He is also a champion snooker player (weird choice, and the snooker analogies get very tired, very quickly). Every year the four of them celebrate Ramsey’s birthday together. This is the only time they meet. Again, weird and implausible. After Ramsey and Jude split up and Irina and Jude have a falling out Lawrence and Irina get into a habit of celebrating Ramsey’s birthday just the three of them. On the third year, Lawrence is out of town on Ramsey’s birthday so Irina and Ramsey celebrate on their own. This is the moment when Irina takes or doesn’t take that step that will change the course of her life.

So from here on, each chapter is told in parallel. I liked this structure—it kept me wanting to know what happened next and what was happening in the ‘other reality’. But the realities were crafted in a way that was quite predicable. If something happened in one plot, the near opposite would happen in the other plot. This was boring and unimaginative and had me rolling my eyes in some parts: “Lionel, do you really think we need to be spoon fed?”

The 9.11 theme was pointless and cheap. The Cookbook Collector, which I have also reviewed, took the same cheap shot and as a result lost even more worth in my eyes. Tacking on 9.11 to the story for no good reason just reeks of greedy and lazy opportunism. It added nothing to the story and was actually pretty self-indulgent I thought.

Having said all this, I actually finished the book, so there must have been some redeeming qualities. The thing is, I can’t put my finger on what they were. I did feel I was getting progressively dumber with each page – maybe I needed to give my brain a rest and I read it at just the right time!


  1. Well written. You have put me off Lionel Shrivers books for ever.
    Thank you. You have saved me a lot of time.Do you think she wrote well in an artistic sense and that is why you continued to the end? Or did you think it worthwhile to indulge in a form of masochism?

    1. There is something compelling about her writing. Having said that, by the time it really started to annoy me and I really thought about putting it away, it was too late. I was more than three quarters of the way through so I had to engage in masochism, as you say...

  2. I completely agree! I'm rereading this book as I remember having a weird loathsome fascination with it before. I like Shriver as an author but she seems incapable of writing characters I give a damn about. Especially Irina, who is a horrible person despite one review saying it's impossible not to care about her. No, it's utterly possible.