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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
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.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing