Book review: The Post-Birthday World

How many times in life have you been faced with two conflicting yet equally desirable choices, for completely different reasons, and wished that you had a crystal ball or some other kind of divination tool so you could look into the future to see where both forks in the path will lead you before deciding?

In Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World, the readers are the ones privileged enough to get that glimpse into the dual possible lives of Irina McGovern - one where she stays with her safe, disciplined, intellectual long-term partner, Lawrence, whose calculated coldness would drive any woman insane with frustration, and the eccentric, creative, fly-by-night Ramsey, a snooker player who's seen and done it all.

Irina's life splits into two at a crucial moment of decision, and we are taken, Sliding Doors-style, through two potential futures. 

Shriver is, of course, the author of the excellent We Need to Talk About Kevin - her seventh novel, and the one that broke through into the mainstream. She has said in interviews that the question of publishing success is one of timing, as her previous novels were just as well written, and yet the subjects were perhaps not quite as topical. 

The Post-Birthday World could be construed as semi-autobiographical, with moments that surely must reflect Shriver's own life. In one of the futures, Irina leaves her cosy little life with Lawrence to embark on a turbulent yet ultimately far more emotionally fulfilling relationship with Ramsey. In real life, Shriver left her partner of a decade, a fellow writer whom she remembers fondly as "an astute editor of my work, that was one of the things I gave up", for a jazz drummer whom she ultimately married in Vegas, wearing a black T-shirt and trainers.

The choice faced by Irina in the book, and Shriver in real life, is one that many people in long-term relationships will be familiar with. Do you stay within the familiar confines of the life you know, where everything is safe, predictable and just ever-so-slightly tarnished with a dull sheen, or do you kiss the tall, dark and handsome snooker player who makes you feel things you've never felt before - and see how far down the rabbit hole goes?

The Post-Birthday World is a brutal examination of love and relationships. Namely, the sacrifices and tradeoffs that we all must make if we are to embark on a relationship or marriage with another human being. We are all flawed, Shriver's novel says, but it's not a question of which flaws you can live with, but rather, who you don't want to live without - at the end of the day.

"Everyone wants to be taken care of," says one of the main characters, and that's probably one of the awful truths about any relationship that falters: it's often when one partner feels neglected or spurned that infidelity occurs.

The Post-Birthday World is in many ways a messy novel compared to the masterpiece that was We Need to Talk About Kevin. Perhaps that is merely a reflection of real life, where romances don't conform to neat little boxes, sitting all in a row.

Have you read The Post-Birthday World? What do you think of it?

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