Sequel to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, catching up with Arthur and his family about 45 years after the first book. The birthday of the title is Jenny's, who was a girlfriend of Brian - Arthur's brother - when they were seventeen.
It's Jenny's seventieth birthday, and so whereas the characters in the first book have most of their life ahead of them, it's now in the past, and we've missed most of it. And that works well, since that's how life seems anyway - by the time you notice, most of it's gone. Arthur's character is very well done: he's married to his second wife, and they are very much in love, with their mutual friendly teasing being very convincingly described. Brian, who appeared in the first book but didn't have such a central role, has had a rather more troubled series of relationships. Brian has very strong nostalgic feelings for Jenny, after they enjoyed an intense teenage affair which ended badly. Jenny, recently widowed after decades of caring for her irascible invalid husband, has her own memories and feelings about Brian, and so there's some expectation that the meeting at the party might lead somewhere.
All in all this was a real joy to read; there was poignancy and sadness there at lost opportunities and lost friends, and warmth in the descriptions of all the characters. Arthur is recognisably the same person as in the first book, although he's mellowed a lot. Well, maybe mellow isn't the best word - "aged"? "lived"?
One thing that did strike me was how many people seem to have either died of, or be suffering from, cancer, but perhaps that goes with the territory when you're seventy. Actually I've a feeling I read an interview with Sillitoe and he said something about being pre-occupied with the disease, so maybe this is one way that shows.
After the disappointment of Life at the Top, Braine's sequel to Room at the Top, I was prepared for this to be a bit of a let-down, but in fact it surpassed (for me) the previous book. Unlike LatT, which you feel, given the relative lack of success of Braine's other books, was written as an attempt to cash in on the success of its predecessor, Sillitoe comes to Birthday having produced an impressive number of other works. And after reading this I think it would be worth trying to work through some of them.
Completed : 06-Jan-2009