A teasing tale of hair today, Irgun tomorrow

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant (Granta, £15.99, 260pp)
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The Independent Culture

Linda Grant writes tales of girls shedding their cocoons. They do so against a political background. So, in her first novel, The Cast Iron Shore, the heroine is the cossetted daughter of a Jewish furrier father and a German mother with Nazi connections. Not a very comfortable cocoon, therefore, in wartime Liverpool, but one which the girl sheds in transit to America, and an immersion in Communist politics.

This novel is the story of a girl who comes to womanhood at the same time as the Jews are achieving statehood. The heroine, Evelyn Sert, begins life in London, with a heady, allenveloping mother but without a father. She has a shadow father, Uncle Joe, but he has a "real family" in Hampstead Garden Suburb. When Evelyn's mother dies, this illusory father asks her what she'd like to do. She says she wants to be an artist, but he says, why not go to Palestine? And because he has money he is able to arrange her passage. So the girl travels to Palestine, with false documents, on a British ship.

Evelyn arrives, ends up on kibbutz, which doesn't suit her, and makes her way to Tel Aviv, where she finds work as a hairdresser, teasing and dyeing the hair of British servicemen's wives. They love her touch of Mayfair (actually Soho, if they knew). She finds love - "a good-looking man with a pencil moustache and an ingrowing toenail" - and in the background, the fight for Jewish independence. The boyfriend turns out to be a member of the Irgun, and the husbands of some of Evelyn's clients are singed by Jewish retribution.

This time, Grant's heroine is a more passive woman: those who have lost parents have, perhaps, less fighting energy than those who have parents that they resist. In both books, however, the women change externally to reflect the inner growth. Clothes matter.

The meaning of the title becomes clear towards the end, when Evelyn is sitting in a café in Nice. In walks a fairy tale: metres and metres of sea-green grosgrain. "Unbeknownst to me, while the Jews of Palestine were into the final stages of their life and death struggle against the British for their future, in Paris Christian Dior had turned the clock back 50 years and launched what, quite paradoxically, came to be known as the New Look." For Evelyn, sighting this dress becomes a defining moment - "the brief moment in my life when I had been privileged to live in modern times".

Grant describes Tel Aviv graphically: she speaks of a heat so intense, ear-lobes sweat. She has done vast quantities of research, which makes this one of those novels that gives us little presents of fact along the way. There are trinkets, like the fact that Vidal Sassoon fought in the Israeli war of Independence, and larger valuables: Grant's portraits of Tel Aviv in earlier times.

She has a lyrical storytelling gift. And she always tells the whole story. Her Irgun terrorist ends up an El Al steward, handing out peanuts. Her heroine largely spends life without any heroism. Subtly, Grant etches in the ironies of her character's life. When Evelyn must leave Palestine - just as the Jews begin the Return - she arrives in France looking like a camp victim, only heavier.

Grant tells the story of a nation, but her characters are not ciphers for a message. The wider story happens outside; internally, it is all about dealing with everyday chaos. She has done that difficult thing - written a second novel as good as her excellent first.