In Berlin, I finished Lionel Shriver’s The Post Birthday World (TBPW). I am a fan of her writing, having loved We Need To Talk About Kevin – a book which many people found difficult given its subject matter of a teenage mass-murderer. I thought Kevin was brave, boldly written and above all, scarily honest. I hoped when picking up TPBW that I would have a similar reaction, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s packed to the gills with Shriver’s trademark intensity, honesty and acid observations.
For anyone who hasn’t yet read an online review of TPBW, it tells the story of a woman, Irina, who goes out for dinner with a friend – a snooker champion called Ramsey Acton – while her husband Lawrence is away on business, and at the end of the evening, either does or does not kiss Ramsey. The plot then forks, one strand following what happens if she does kiss him and the other what happens if she doesn’t. Shriver builds a parallel universe and each chapter alternates between each story strand. It’s a style that could be pedantic in the wrong hands, but in Shriver’s it’s gripping.
I love Shriver’s voice. When I read her, I feel as if I’m sitting in a smoky dive with a favourite friend who’s regaling me with scurrilous gossip – complete with salacious sexual detail – but leavened with insightful and acidic psychological observations. It’s gossip, but it’s top-notch gossip. And yet I wouldn’t call her gossipy. Like Anne Tyler, she has a way of drawing you into an intensely observed world whose characters become quickly known but remain infinitely interesting in their quirks and flaws. It’s a style I relish.
Take this quote, a few pages in. Irina’s reflecting on the first nine years of her relationship with Lawrence:
Monogamy had been effortless. Over nine years, Irina had been attracted to one of Lawrence’s colleagues from the Blue Sky Institute for exactly half an hour – at the end of which the man rose for another round of drinks, and she noticed that his backside was pear-shaped. That was that, like a scratchiness in your throat when you don’t end up coming down with a cold.
Or this, where she notices that she and Lawrence have stopped kissing:
They had a robust sex life, and it semed insensible to focus on the deficits of sensory window-dressing. Yet lately when she watched actors smooching in movies, Irina felt a confusing admixture of alienation – what obscure anthropological custom is this, the pressing of lips? – and jealousy.
Yet before I leave you with the impression that TPBW is knocked together with a series of quotable, funny sound-bites, I have to say that Shriver’s is an assured and strong literary voice. The way she describes Lawrence’s collapse as Irina tells him she’s leaving him (in the Folks, I Kissed Him strand of the story) is visual and poignant:
Rather than take her faithlessness to task, Lawrence had assumed all the blame for their relationship’s shortcomings – head bowed, shoulders humped, knees pressed, while slow, fat tears dropped on his crooked wrists. His gentle, inward collapse resembled those skillful demolitions of large derelict buildings, whose charges are set in such a way that the bricks cave inward; aside from accumulating an elegiac layer of dust, surrounding structures remain unharmed. Since most of the self-destruction of the personal variety sucks everything and everyone in the vicinity into the rubble, the spectacle on the sofa was not only terrible to witness, but wondrous: an implosion so complete, which yet left his onlooker unscathed.
The strands of Shriver’s parallel narratives wind expertly around each other throughout the book, so that the action in one Folks, I Kissed Him chapter will reflect but not entirely mirror the action in the next Folks, I Kissed Him Not chapter. In the same way the protagonists must reflect themselves characteristically, while also showing the emotional pressures that a different set of actions will exert. Shriver manages to do both successfully, which is testimony to her talent. Irina is mercurial and self-doubting, Ramsey is consistently passionate and volatile, Lawrence is kind and devoted. And yet all three explode your expectations of them, as if one division in life’s path will inevitably lead to many more possibilities opening up. It’s a fascinating proposition.
Her final message, as I see it, is that we are ultimately alone and whatever path we choose, we need to make damn sure we enjoy our own company because that’s who we’re going to end up with. Irina is a woman who admits she “needs a man”, rather desperately too, and in my own experience I have noticed that women (or men) who seem to desperately need a partner are often forced by some twist of fate to learn to live alone. I suspect that TPBW is a testimony to emotional self-sufficiency – and that’s an idea that strongly appeals to me.
Now that I’ve come over like the secretary of the Lionel Shriver Fan Club, let me also say that I have one peeve about the book. Irina and Lawrence are expat Americans living in London; Ramsay is English. He plays snooker, a uniquely English game, which many Americans might imagine is like pool, but which is vastly different. Shriver is quite lyrical about snooker, describing intricately and knowledgeably some of Ramsey’s snooker battles. She allows the reader’s knowledge of snooker (if it doesn’t exist) to evolve through the characters’ perspective: Ramsey the expert, Lawrence the fan and Irina, who’s ignorant but prefers its background noise (“the vitreous click-click of balls and civilised patter of polite applause”) to that of cop shows.
Irritatingly, though, she doesn’t do this with two other uniquely British institutions – the National Health Service and the London property market. Shriver, in a moment of tangential superfluosity, explains the NHS to her imagined American audience:
Yet however sterling in theory, in practice the NHS was chronically underfunded. Its waiting lists for treatment were infamously and sometimes fatally long. Scandalous cases made headlines in which cancer patients had the wrong breast removed, the wrong kidney, the wrong leg. In public hospitals, the superbug MRSA was killing twelve hundred patients a year. A full third of the NHS budget was dedicated to paying off malpractice suits.
All very true, I’m sure, but why tell us? I can’t remember reading a single American novel that takes the trouble to pull me aside and whisper in my ear about how the healthcare system works. Sure, it’s interesting to the plot (Ramsey, now bankrupt, has to go public with his cancer treatment, poor poppet), but show us the NHS works, please don’t tell us. There was a similar moment with the property market, which is once again “explained” for the jackasses over the pond.
However, in the scope of a gripping 600-page book these two mini-moments were a mere speck. Coming right at the end as they did, perhaps Shriver and her editor were just plain tired. I remain in awe of this splendid, exacting and unputdownable novel. And if you are at all interested in reading more about TPBW, I can strongly recommend Diaphanous’s lovely review. (Edited to add: Dorothy’s also just posted a great review. See it here.)