The Clothed Life

Joanna Biggs

  • We Had It So Good by Linda Grant
    Virago, 344 pp, £14.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 1 84408 637 5

Linda Grant’s new novel, We Had It So Good, begins in sunshine. There’s the epigraph: ‘He had like many another been born in full sunlight and lived to see night fall.’ (That’s from Waugh’s Men at Arms.) Then the first image: Stephen Newman in his shorts, aged nine, on the ‘most exciting day’ of his life – a day spent in the fur storage depot in which his father looks after Marilyn Monroe’s mink. The sun follows him to a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford: ‘It was the summer the astronauts walked on the moon. There was nothing more glamorous than an astronaut, not even the film stars with their minks.’ ‘It was the summer’ and its variations – ‘It was the summer of 1970, and sexual intercourse was well advanced’ (The Pregnant Widow); ‘It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbour Coleman Silk … confided to me that, at the age of 71, he was having an affair with a 34-year-old cleaning woman’ (The Human Stain); ‘That summer of ’76, what with the heat and the flies and the endless melodies of ice-cream vans, things happened in a haze’ (White Teeth) – is a useful way of doing recent history, of bringing the personal to the political and surface to depth. And even though the formula can start in the third person and slide into the first, it needn’t. As a form of words, it’s ordinary, so for it to zing there has to be some sort of voice behind it: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York’ (The Bell Jar). Good ones can do ordinary and extraordinary at once; they can do the novel in miniature. Grant seems to know what the sentence can do for her but fails to do anything special with it, other than set the scene. Even the thought seems run of the mill: isn’t an astronaut already a type of movie star?

Linda Grant has known success in the 15 years she’s been writing novels. Her first, The Cast Iron Shore (1996), won the David Higham Prize for Fiction; her second, When I Lived in Modern Times (2000), won the Orange Prize over the shoo-in, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; her third, Still Here (2002), was longlisted for the Booker Prize; her fourth, The Clothes on Their Backs (2008), was shortlisted for the Man Booker and won the South Bank Show Literature Award. The publicity for the fifth novel, We Had It So Good, claims that Grant ‘illuminates our times like no other’ and the newspaper reviewers have taken the bait: for the FT the book ‘perfectly matches form and content’; the Evening Standard’s reviewer feared that she ‘may not read a better book all year’ and the Independent won’t ‘be surprised to see this new novel on shortlists in 2011’. Equally, her second non-fiction book, Remind Me Who I Am, Again (1998), about her mother’s dementia, won the Mind Book of the Year award; her third, The People on the Street: A Writer’s View of Israel (2006), won the Lettre Ulysses Prize for the Art of Reportage. The only unlaurelled books are her first work of non-fiction, Sexing the Millennium: Women and the Sexual Revolution (1993) and the most recent, The Thoughtful Dresser (2009), about clothes.

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