We Had It So Good, By Linda Grant

Once-young utopians face history's pull
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In 1968, Stephen Newman, clever scion of working-class American immigrants, earns his passage to England as a ship's steward to take up a Rhodes science scholarship at Oxford.

On board he's befriended by another scholar, "a big blond Southern boy with a veneer of East Coast sophistication" who "radiated chemical appeal". Decades later, Stephen's children, Marianne and Max, will scorn their father's claim that he once ate petits-fours with the future President Clinton. Stephen's own Oxford career ends in disgrace, but also, more happily, in a marriage of convenience to Andrea, the flame-haired undergrad next door. Happily because, against all odds, it lasts.

Linda Grant's latest novel, following the triumph of When I Lived in Modern Times (the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000) and The Clothes on Their Backs (the Man Booker Prize shortlist, 2008), tells the stories of Stephen and Andrea and their families. She uses her material shrewdly to examine the experiences and values of her own gilded post-war generation; those baby boomers who "had it so good", and to whom, as Stephen later reflects, "nothing bad is supposed to happen".

Grant's vivid narration sets us right inside the minds of her characters, and we view everything through their eyes in lean, almost documentary prose. Mercurial Stephen flourishes as a television producer in the era of Tomorrow's World. Andrea cuts a successful path as a therapist. Tough, practical, loving, it is she who makes far-sighted decisions for the family unit.

Grant allows them all to be fully themselves rather than vehicles for her ideas. It's interesting, for instance, to see how each character has been affected by the failings of their parents – but that doesn't mean Grant dooms the children to turn out a certain way. A hard war left Andrea's father diminished, yet his daughter proves resilient. As for the next generation, Stephen and Andrea feel guilty about their children – something new. Despite lavishing them with love they still have problems: plump, unhappy Marianne seeks to exorcise her demons as a war photographer in the former Yugoslavia. Max, following a period of childhood deafness, grows up quiet and self-contained, but finds expression in a career as a conjurer.

Grant sets her individuals firmly in their broader landscape. "Our parents had the war... we had ideals," Stephen's friend Ivan points out in middle age. He means socialism, communalism, the doors of perception opened by drugs. "Most of them cranky and failed, but we did dream, didn't we?" Ironically, Ivan is now big in advertising, a purveyor of dreams about washing powder and toiletries. As they grow older, these once-young utopians are forced to acknowledge the pull of history; indeed Grant's interests always seem to lie less in the future than in our roots.

Grant is building up an important fictional oeuvre that offers a fresh and perceptive commentary on our times. I would not be surprised to see this new novel on shortlists in 2011.

Comments