Birthday is Alan Sillitoe's eagerly awaited sequel to his classic novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, first published in 1958. The novel transformed post-war English fiction, and gave a new voice to working-class masculinity of the 1950s. In Birthday, Sillitoe returns to the Nottinghamshire of his earlier novel, to explore what happened to the original characters.
Brian Seaton returns to the town of his birth to visit his childhood sweetheart's 70th birthday party, and to see his roguish brother, Arthur. The result is an extremely elegiac, downbeat novel, as Brian and his brother flit between their ageing present and vibrant past. Brian, now a successful scriptwriter based in London, visits his old haunts, reflecting that "no matter how changed, it was an area in which he had no need of maps. Everything was in the past, but an event could leap to mind with such intensity it might have happened in the last five minutes". It is this tone that pervades Birthday. Very little actually happens in the novel, as Brian and Arthur travel around the area, coming to terms with disappointments, disillusions and the now ailing characters that made sense of their younger lives. The story is loosely structured around Brian's tortuous relationship with Jenny, trapped in a marriage to a crippled ex-steelworker. But as the novel progresses, he realises that "they were in love with the past rather than each other".
Birthday is a poignant but very low-key evocation of a world that has been lost forever. It will appeal to those who found Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning a breath of fresh air, but others may question the wisdom of a sequel over 40 years on. --Jerry Brotton