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

Valerie Windsor's second novel, Saint and Warrior, is the memoir of a woman convicted of murder, who writes to us from her prison cell. The narrative is interspersed with weekly conversations between the heroine and her prison psychiatrist, her work in the prison library and occasional visits from members of her family and her solicitor, who is putting together an appeal on her behalf.

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."

"Fox?"

"No, she's too young for fox. It's a middle-aged woman's fur."

"Persian broadtail?"

"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.

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?