Books: Saints and sinners in silk
Saint and Warrior by Valerie Windsor, Viking, pounds 13.50 The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant, Picador, pounds 15.99; Susie Boyt on the trail of riches and beauty from Liverpool to New York
Saturday 15 June 1996
From her earliest beginnings, Sandra Bagnall recognises that she has star quality. The women who gaze and coo at her in her pram declare her a beauty queen, destined for the films like that Elizabeth Taylor. Constantly hearing her angelic looks associated with truth and goodness, infant Sandra, who has inherited her African father's height and bone structure and her Irish mother's luminous complexion and sparkly eyes, hatches an ambition to become a saint. She pictures the people flooding to admire the "translucent beauty of her soul" shining through her billowing robes. This fantasy is rudely shattered when, aged 11, Sandra accidentally kills her little sister.
The suppressed guilt that this incident produces (Sandra receives no blame, only comfort for the loss of her sibling) is set up as the explanation for the direction of the rest of Sandra's life, the years of passive, aimless living, culminating in the murder of her husband in her thirties - perhaps a final attempt to win some recognition for the part she played in her sister's death.
Some of the more extreme events in this novel do not quite ring true. Sandra's twenties, in which she makes the transition from nervous patient in a nursing home to Kathy Kuriakis, Page Three girl, the national pin- up that most Falkland heroes preferred, seems odd, because I would have thought Sandra lacked the tenacity necessary for that level of celebrity. Her marriage to the international art collector, Dysart Stevens, complete with villas and Upper East side apartments, seems a little trite as well as unlikely: he the passionless aesthete, she another beautiful thing for his collection. When Dysart commissions numerous artists to paint his new wife, and hangs the pictures in a room, transferring his affections gradually from his wife onto the paintings, it does seem as though the author is taking us through a set-piece.
As the child Sandra longs for glamour, sainthood and supermodeldom, so the author seems to require a passage of gracious living in her novel, for fear it will become too ordinary. Yet Windsor is at her best when dealing with ordinary things. In a book that is divided between fairy- tale, nightmare, and a conventional story of growing up, it is the Bildungsroman elements that are most effective: the curt and vicious rivalry between Sandra and her elder sister Beverley; the growth of her adolescent passion for Billy Fox in his transit van; the intense discomfort she feels in Billy's parents' house, which is all peach and bleach. Sandra's subsequent associations with a series of kind but shady father figures convincingly define her as a girl who is lost and hurt, trying to find a world where she can live numbly, and not have to risk having any feelings.
The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant is a daring and unusual novel. It sets the development of its glamorous heroine against a study of some of the most important struggles of the 20th century, bringing issues of race, equality and prejudice within its scope. It is also a book that is deeply obsessed with fashion. Sybil Ross's childhood is lent a powerful glamour by the fact that her Jewish father is a furrier. She brims with pride at the sorts of conversations that go on in her house:
"I'll think about a coat for the coming season."
"No, she's too young for fox. It's a middle-aged woman's fur."
"Too sophisticated. Chinchilla."
"Divine," my mother exclaimed. "Witty, young and chic."
Sybil's mother is obsessed with clothes, using them like a drug to disguise the pain of her life. She takes day trips from Liverpool to London, cruising the dress shops, fantasising about her life as a rich London lady and speaking like a magazine: "How soon the fitting room chic disappears if the material is not good." The fashion details are mesmerising: a mauve suede glove here, a ballerina-length gown there, a coral-pink tweed jacket,a pair of Mirasilk stockings. In fact, in a book where the main characters are so disciplined about eating, the emphasis on clothes comes to seem like the gorgeous descriptions of food that contemporary novelists often favour.
Yet Sybil has a guilty secret - her mother is German. As a half-Jewish girl she holds the enemy within, and this division is offered as the reason for her dissatisfaction, her restlessness. After a romance with a Jewish man is thwarted by the discovery of her true parentage, Sybil embarks on a long romance with Stan, a bisexual, snappy-dressing Liverpudlian sailor whom she eventually follows to New York. There her fashion knowledge and good looks land her jobs in a series of department stores, where both she and Stan make much use of her staff discount.
One New Year, when Stan is away, lured to the dance halls of Harlem, Sybil falls for Julius, a black American activist and "autodidact" whose outlook is severe (his romantic code is "if you have an itch - scratch it"), and who teaches Sybil the shallowness of her ways. He educates her in his philosophy, has her wrestling with her own superficiality, and introduces her to the Communist Party when McCarthyism is at its height.
This is the part of the novel I found least attractive. Sybil's education and subsequent hardships, although not unconvincing, are a huge wrench from what we have come to expect, but then Grant's novel is very ambitious in its range. It takes us from department store to political rally, from dance halls to a life in exile, atmospherically recreating wartime Liverpool, post-war New York, and ending with an elderly Sybil reviewing her lot in London in the 1980s. It is chiefly memorable, however as an intelligent investigation of the different choices available to a beautiful woman drifting through life during a period of great world change.
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