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A Writer On Writing: The Post-Birthday World

Sally Jenkins comments on a novel by Lionel Shriver.

I found the book totally confusing until I got to grips with its singular structure.

In chapter one, Irina, the heroine, has to decide whether to kiss another man, Ramsey (she already has a long-term partner, Lawrence). After chapter one, the story splits in two with alternate chapters following what happens to Irina if she goes ahead with the kiss and the intervening chapters dealing with what happens if she doesn’t kiss Ramsey. The two strands share a final chapter.

In summary – it’s two books in one.

Once I got the hang of this I thoroughly enjoyed the book (thanks for lending it to me, Alison!) I preferred the ‘unfaithful’ strand of the story – maybe because in books its interesting to watch characters make risky decisions that many of us wouldn’t dare to take in real life.

Shriver says of the book, ‘Hingeing the book on this single decision allows me to explore the implications, large and small, of whom we choose to love’.

She also describes it as ‘participatory fiction’ – at the end of the book you know the results of both courses of action, so with hindsight which choice would you have made? Would you have chosen to kiss or not to kiss? It’s a very hard question to answer since the ultimate outcome is the same for both strands of the story – they share the final chapter. I think the unfaithful Irina had more of a roller-coaster ride along the way but the faithful Irina didn’t have an easy time of it either.

I suspect it must have been quite fun to write a novel with this type of structure. Usually, at each turning point, our characters must follow only one course of action and we never get to explore how things might have developed had they chosen a different path. Shriver is able to examine the impact of both possible outcomes on all her characters - Irina, Lawrence and Ramsey.

The Post-Birthday World is a book worth reading.




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