In Lionel Shriver's astonishingly profound novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the American-born London-based author explored the notion of nature versus nurture. It divided readers across the world and became the quintessential book group book, if only because its content stimulated so much discussion. If a student went on a killing spree, was the mother to blame? Or had he simply been born evil?
In her long-awaited follow-up, The Post-Birthday World, Shriver treads less controversial ground but doesn't shy away from exploring a theme that is likely to generate a similar amount of discussion: is life pre-ordained or do we need to take responsibility for our actions? Is sex or companionship more important in a relationship? And is there such a thing as a perfect partner?
In this accomplished and incredibly well plotted novel we meet Irina McGovern, a children's book illustrator, who is an expat American living in South London. Every July 6 Irina and her long-term partner, Lawrence, meet an acquaintance, Ramsey Acton, who is a rich and famous snooker player, to celebrate his birthday. It is a once-a-year rendezvous that Irina usually tries to wriggle out of. The one year that Lawrence can't make it due to a business trip, Irina is left to entertain Ramsey on her own. It is on this particular evening that Irina's comfortable, if occasionally dull life, cleaves in two.
And this is where Shriver has fun exploring the what ifs. What if Irina kisses Ramsey on this night? And what if she decides to resist temptation?
The Post-Birthday World charts Irina's life using a parallel universe structure, one in which she chooses to run off with the wild and impetuous Ramsey and the other in which she stays with her dependable, intellectual partner Lawrence. These two worlds are so diametrically opposed -- the seedy on-the-road life of the professional snooker player and the closeted, safe and cerebral existence of an academic -- that Irina's decision in anything but a light one. Does she settle for Lawrence's seeming unwillingness to experiment in bed (he won't even kiss her) or does she seek the sexual thrills that Ramsey offers? Does she maintain the cosy homelife she shares with Lawrence -- who won't marry her -- or does she embark on a steamy affair that may ultimately end in wedlock?
Irina's two lives are told in alternate chapters. I initially found this confusing, but once I understood the structure of the book I found that it lent each story an extra depth. This is because much of the dialogue in each "universe" is repeated, although the words don't necessarily fall out of the same mouths. I can only imagine how much hard work went into plotting and planning this extraordinary novel.
As ever Shriver's prose is forthright and incisive. The characterisation is superb. Irina is especially compelling, if only because she seems very human -- and self-absorbed -- and is never quite sure whether she should follow her head or follow her heart.
I loved the setting. The London described in these pages is one I know well (I work in South London), so I had fun spotting the familiar landmarks. And Shriver's descriptions of snooker, a sport that is peculiarly English, are spot-on. It was a brave decision for an American to write about it, but she handles it with aplomb, even if some of the passages explaining the sport's history seemed a little laboured.
Unfortunately, Ramsey's dialect, a kind of contrived Cockney-speak, doesn't always ring true -- he uses words that don't fit, such as gobshite (which is Irish) and pet (which is from the North) -- that suggest Shriver, an American, hasn't come to terms with native English, or is playing a much cleverer game in which Ramsey is not all that he appears to be. Either way, I found his idiosyncratic speech grated throughout much of the book.
Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed The Post-Birthday World, ripping through its 600 weighty pages in a little under two weeks. It's a fascinating account of one woman's personal growth as she learns that both men in her life are good people with character flaws and that no matter who you choose there will always be ups and downs. The ultimate moral of this book is that life is what you make of it. No more, no less.
PS> If you want to know more about snooker, can I suggest you read The Hurricane: The Turbulent Life and Times of Alex Higgins by Bill Burrows. It provides a fascinating glimpse into one of the sport's most controversial characters.