Grant Linda

Linda Grant: We Had It So Good

Linda Grant was the surprise of the Booker 2008 season for me: her novel The Clothes on their Backs was the best on the shortlist and, in my opinion, should have won. Inevitably, then, I wanted to read her new book.

We Had It So Good is a book of contrasts: England and America; parents and children; reason and emotion; the past and the future; stability and chaos. The elements are combined beguilingly. Stephen and Andrea Newman came of age in the 1960s and lived a life both strikingly individual and typical of the postwar generation. Stephen is American, the son of a Californian fur trader to the stars; tantalisingly close to glamorous fame but held at one remove from it (“they had assistants bring in the coats, the heat of the stars’ bodies still trapped in the linings”). Stephen dodges the Vietnam draft by moving to England, accompanied by a fellow Oxford Rhodes scholar destined to become much more famous. Coming from a young country where “if you peeled off the layers of the present you would find only more present,” he finds that in England, “history’s insistence on not getting out of the way was depressing.” So the present and future is what enthralls him, particularly when he meets redheaded Andrea and her friend Grace. He marries the former, while Grace will become an emblem of opposition (“Fuck this fucking country”), the obverse to Stephen and Andrea’s increasingly conventional marriage, seemingly idyllic and settled, but also built of constraint and compromise.

Their story is being told by Stephen and Andrea to their children Marianne and Max (the names seemingly chosen to emphasise their firm middle-class status). But when Marianne tells her brother that “you cannot rely on them for the truth. Parents, by definition, are liars,” we have some sympathy with her. Stephen’s account of the 1960s and 70s seems to veer too close to media shorthand rather than the particularity of lived experience: bare-breasted hippies, patchouli oil, bell-bottoms and cheesecloth shirts, loon pants and joss sticks. Is he really telling his children – and us – what he remembers?

Stephen and Andrea – and the rest of their generation – are not just parents but children too, and the strongest sections of the book are cross-generational exchanges. Stephen travels to eastern Europe with his elderly father; Grace has a particularly chilly encounter with her father which will indelibly mark her; Andrea must come to terms with the notion that people, even parents, can hold two contradictory impulses in their heads:

Once, Andrea overheard her mother say to the housekeeper, ‘If I had my time over again, I wouldn’t have had children. I’d have been fancy free.'” [Then,] seeing her standing by the door, said, ‘Don’t listen to me, Andy Pandy. I wouldn’t give you up for anything.’

This feeds into Andrea’s adult occupation of therapist, charged with “teaching her clients (particularly the women) that they were not responsible for the actions of other people.” Women “had no sense that they deserved to put themselves first and foremost.” And why should they, when Grace, the woman who does do that – “I’m in that room and no one has the address. However hard they look, they’ll never find me” – ends up suffering so? Meanwhile, as maturity and family take hold of Andrea and Stephen, they settle down for the long littleness of life: “Stephen can’t think of much to say about it. It was a period of growth followed by satisfactory consolidation.”

Yet in this “blur of middle age and child rearing,” there is much surprise and detail. Deafness, war, illusions; modern history, unexpected illness, the dismantling of a life. The details – on advertising, for example – sometimes look like research infodumps, but are elsewhere well assimilated and bring life to the characters (and the characters to life). Stephen, in an inspired sequence of scenes, uses Google to find out what has happened to people featured in the early sections of the book – and this adds a coat of entitlement to his characterisation, for who else but this easy-achieving generation would presume their old university pals had risen far enough in the world to be picked up easily by search engines 30 years on?

In the end, their high achievements mask their uneasy knowledge that their way in life was made easier by the sacrifices of their parents’ generation in war and depression. “We’ve had it made.” That, too, is the debt of every generation, and of any child to its parents. I said earlier that We Had It So Good is a book of contrasts, and it is also a book of two halves, where perhaps inevitably, the interest level rises considerably when things start going wrong for the golden couple in the second half. Neither successful and interesting careers, nor lucky buoyancy on a rising tide of house prices, can ultimately shield them when it’s their time to experience “the usual ineffable sadness of merely living.”

Linda Grant: The Clothes on their Backs

Being the obsessive type that I am, I ordered all the Booker longlisted titles on the evening of the announcement (other than the two I’d read previously). When they arrived, I saw that ten of the eleven were still in their first printing, and industry sources tell us that most of the books had sold poorly until then, some (such as Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog) having shifted just a few hundred copies. I noticed one exception: Linda Grant’s The Clothes on their Backs had been reprinted twice since its publication six months earlier. Clearly it exceeded its publisher’s expectations. Good: because it also exceeded mine.

I admit that when I started The Clothes on their Backs, I was feeling jaded about the Booker longlist experience, and to some extent just wanted to get it over with. Linda Grant’s novel changed that, and gave me the sort of pure reading pleasure that I haven’t had since, oh, July. What I welcomed most was that – at last! – here on the longlist was a book which had strong explicit themes and subject matter, vivid characters, good dialogue and a web of interesting storylines. All in all, what we expect from a fine example of a traditional literary novel (and I mean no faint praise by that).

The structure is neat, starting us off near the end of the story and then weaving back and forth through the linked lives of the characters until we end up where we began. The narrator is Vivien Amory, née Kovacs, a middle-aged woman, living in London (“I accept this city, with all its uncontrollable chaos and dirty deficiencies”), of Hungarian stock, who is attempting to get to the bottom of the discord between her uncle and her father.

My father was terrified of change. When change was in the air anything could happen, and he already suffered from an anxiety: that any small disturbance in his circumstances would bring everything down – the flat, the wife, the job, the new daughter, London itself, then England, and he would slide down the map of the world, back to Hungary, clinging on uselessly, ridiculously, with his fingers clutching the smooth, rolling surface of the globe.

Her uncle Sándor could not be more different: “a monster, a true beast,” Vivien’s parents warn her; “the face of evil,” the newspapers say, whose CV would list jailbird, pimp, slum landlord and more besides. Now we’re talking. Vivien meets Sándor, and my heart sank a little when Grant used the hackneyed device of Vivien extracting Sándor’s past by transcribing his dictated memoirs. Fortunately, this is not the beginning of a book-long entry into wartime Hungary. Grant’s skill here is not to dwell on the stories of Sándor’s past – and that of Hungarian Jews generally – but to ration them, and thus to avoid diluting their force.

Sándor plays down the effect of life under the Hungarian Fascists, the Arrow Cross – “I was one of the ones who didn’t change. I began as a businessman and that’s how I continued” – and makes the case that life in anti-Semitic wartime it was, for most of the people, most of the time, literally business as usual. But there are stark memories which cannot be effaced.

After the quarantine camp, they were all taken for a bath, the first in over three years, and their clothes, the ones they had left home in, were boiled and ridden of the millions of lice that had taken up residence there.

In clean clothes they felt suddenly reborn. They examined their rags for signs that they had once been human beings. Might this flap be a lapel, and was this an indication of a pocket? A piece of cloth bore faint traces of once having been tweed. This man’s trousers had once been exhibited in the window of a fashionable department store in 1937, with a ticket indicating a high price. But though the slaves were clean and dry, they were also starving. They ripped grass from the earth and ate it. Men were writhing and dying in their boiled clothes.

It is the connection between life in Hungary and life in Britain – a journey made in some cases with only the clothes they stood up in, “the clothes on their backs” – which animates the novel. Vivien’s parents have become cowed by their past: “Don’t ask questions,” Vivien’s father tells her when she watches news of Sándor’s trial. “No one ever had a quiet life by asking questions, and a life that isn’t peaceful is no life at all.” Sándor has come out fighting, not always to his or others’ benefit (“‘Truth?’ cried my uncle. ‘Miss, people who like to hear the truth don’t know nothing about the truth. Truth would make them sick if they knew it. Truth isn’t nice. It’s for grown-up people, not children'”). The two brothers seem together to make a whole, like the completeness Vivien experiences in adolescence by discovering how to change her appearance. “I found myself in two halves, the interior and exterior of my own head.”

Vivien’s story is a clamour of details, here there and everywhere, and at times it seems there are too many elements in the mix, some of which are not fully explored, such as Vivien’s widowhood and abortion. (I mention these as examples which are raised early in the book, and so shouldn’t constitute spoilers.) In the end I felt this fluid approach was justified, as James Salter wrote of his magnificent Light Years:

The only things that are important in life are those you remember. … It was to be a book of pure recall.

So for Vivien, the everyday things – including “the clothes you wear … they change you from the outside in” – are more pressing and worthy of notice than the increasingly distant memories of her very brief marriage. In addition, most of the scattered aspects are revisited with sufficient frequency (“Who can really remember pain? It’s impossible, you don’t remember it, you only fear it returning”) to make it clear that they do form part of a larger pattern. If the story is how the past leads to the present, then it is important to bring to life that present.

I am unsure whether I really can’t think of anything I disliked about The Clothes on their Backs, or if I was just relieved to like it after finding so much mediocrity in the rest of the Booker longlist. It’s one of those books which makes me frustrated at my own inability to convey why I got so much out of it: suffice it to say that I feel I haven’t touched on half the qualities – did I mention the just-so humour in the dialogue? – and ideas – how extremism evolves to fit its society, for example – in the book. Vivien, in a youthful attempt to become a newspaper literary critic (“No one had ever defended literature so honourably from its own practitioners”), is told by the books editor:

Listen, dear, all we want to know is what the subject is, a bit of an idea about the plot, who the characters are and whether the author has pulled off what they set out to do.

Oh. Right. Give me a minute.