- Charlie Hopkinson
Linda Grant was born in Liverpool, England in 1951, and read English at the University of York.
Her first novel, The Cast Iron Shore (1996), won the David Higham Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize. Her second, When I Lived in Modern Times (2000), set in Palestine immediately after the Second World War, won the Orange Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction. Her novel, Still Here (2002), set in Liverpool, tells the story of a middle-aged English woman and her relationship with an American architect.Her non-fiction includes Sexing the Millennium: A Political History of the Sexual Revolution (1993) and Remind Me Who I Am, Again (1998), an account of her mother's dementia, which won the MIND Book of the Year/Allen Lane Award. The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel (2006), was winner of the 2006 Lettre Ulysses Award; and The Clothes on Their Backs (2008) was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The Thoughful Dresser (2009) was followed by We Had It So Good (2011) and Upstairs at the Party (2014), her most recent novel.
Linda Grant lives in North London.
In Grant’s debut novel, The Cast Iron Shore (1996), Sybil Rose moves to the USA at the time of the McCarthy witch-hunts and joins the Communist Party.
Brought up to be an empty-headed showpiece by her style-obsessed mother, Sybil describes her journey to the centre of 20th-century idealism as her ‘great romance with moral grandeur.’ This phrase is a key to Grant’s work. Her characters are, to a greater or lesser extent, existential Marxists, defining themselves against the push and pull of historical forces. It is Grant’s treatment of individuals trapped between worlds, selves and cultures that makes her fiction interesting and worthwhile.
In When I Lived In Modern Times (2000), Evelyn, a 20-year-old hairdresser, sails for a post-war Palestine still under the control of the British Mandate. There, full of optimism and youthful verve, she takes up residence in the Bauhaus city of Tel Aviv, high on the Zionist hope of creating a socialist Utopia. Unsure of which side she belongs to, she becomes Priscilla Jones, finding an initial comfort in an English identity that she will soon lose confidence in. ‘History was no theme park,’ Evelyn says. ‘It was what you lived.’
While Still Here (2002), the story of Alix and Joseph, two people in middle age trying to come to terms with their own pasts, is more personal than the rest of Grant’s work, the characters are still drawn against the larger canvas of historical events, including the Holocaust and the bombing of Dresden.
The Clothes on Their Backs (2008), like The Cast Iron Shore, turns on a family secret. Vivien Kovacs, looking back on her childhood and youth in the seventies, remembers a pivotal moment when her Uncle Sandor appeared at the door of her parents’ flat and was made unwelcome by her father in an uncharacteristic moment of passion. Sandor brought to this stifling world of repressed emotion off the Edgware Road, the kind of glamour Vivien knew nothing of and was immediately attracted to. Dressed in a mohair suit and accompanied by a young woman in a leopard-skin hat, Sandor is suave, self-assured and charming, nothing like his timid mouse of a brother. Years later Vivien discovers that Sandor is a notorious slum landlord, vilified by the popular press and an embarrassment to her parents who want nothing more than to fit quietly into an England which gave them refuge from persecution in Hungary. When Vivien later meets her uncle as a young woman grieving the loss of her husband, she keeps her real identity from him, and becomes his amanuensis. What she learns of her family’s history and the unimaginable suffering her uncle has known, forces her to confront her idealistic notions of morality. Grant’s characters define themselves, and are defined by the shift of events beyond themselves. They can only come to an understanding of who they are by an understanding of the larger forces around them.
Grant’s interest in disguise and rebirth is a marked feature of her work. In The Cast Iron Shore, Sybil is forced to go underground for several years, adopting innumerable identities to avoid detection. In When I Lived in Modern Times Evelyn dyes her hair, and in so doing is able to convince people in Tel Aviv that she is English and not Jewish. This not only allows her to act as spy for a Zionist group but also gives her the opportunity to gather comfort from being surrounded by people with whom, she shares a culture. In Still Here, Joseph’s estranged wife undergoes cosmetic surgery in what she hopes will return her to some kind of belief in herself. In The Clothes On Their Backs both Sandor and Vivien attempt to reinvent themselves through the clothes they choose to wear. Grant demonstrates the vulnerability of transformation, the painful fact that the reality may be nothing like the ideal out of which it arose; her fiction is full of people changing their names and appearance, concealing their pasts, making themselves anew.
Still Here, Grant’s most enjoyable novel, is about connections between friends, lovers, families and colleagues. It is also a tale of people afraid to acknowledge the reality of their own senses. Alix, a Liverpudlian woman whose Jewish parents accidentally emigrated to the city from Eastern Europe when they thought they were on the boat headed for New York, works restoring disused synagogues. Joseph, a middle-aged American architect is in Liverpool to oversee the building of a hotel he has designed and which he hopes will play a significant part in the architectural regeneration of the city. He is struggling to accept the reality of his failing marriage and keen to forget his involvement in the 1967 Six-Day War. The novel is the story of the slow burning attraction between this pair and much of the humour derives from a clash of perspectives. Joseph’s struggles with his son, his painful realisation that his marriage may be over, and his confused feelings towards Alix are entertaining, heartfelt and authentic, and the irascible and acerbic Alix is one of Grant’s most memorable creations. The use of two first person narrators works very well and the incremental development of Alix and Joseph’s relationship is handled with style.
Grant has also written three works of non-fiction: Sexing the Millennium (1993), a history of the sexual revolution; Remind Me Who I Am, Again (1998); a portrait of her mother’s descent into dementia; and The People on the Streets: A Writer’s View of Israel (2006), an impressionistic diary of her months living in Israel. Grant’s non-fiction is notable for its sensitive and intelligent examination of its subject matter. Her memoir is the stand-out work here. Remind Me Who I Am, Again is an honest and often distressing account of her mother’s illness as well as a provocative enquiry into the significance of memory. It will be of great interest to anyone who has had a similarly painful experience of caring for someone with dementia. The People on the Streets is insightful and revealing. Broken into chapters which explore aspects of Jewish identity, such as chutzpah and davka, it reads as a video diary in written form what remains after reading this book is a sense of the incredible richness, variety and vitality of the small block in Tel Aviv where Grant lived for a time and where she observed and involved herself in the extraordinary life around her.
Garan Holcombe, 2008