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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition