‘When I Lived in Modern Times’ by Linda Grant

When-I-lived-in-modern-times

Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta Books; 272 pages; 2000.

A young woman’s search for cultural identity at the end of the Second World War is the focus of Linda Grant’s award-winning When I Lived in Modern Times. The story is set largely in Palestine before partition and is told through the eyes of a 20-year-old Londoner in search of her Jewish roots.

A new life

Evelyn Sert is English by birth, but her parents are Jewish immigrants from Poland and Latvia. All through her childhood, she is conscious of the fact that she is “exotic” — “I was a round-faced, stubborn, dark-haired girl whose lips were too red and whose eyes were too black” — and struggles to fit in.

After a failed attempt to join art school, she works at her mother’s hairdressing salon in Soho until her mother’s untimely death in 1946. Then, itching to start a new life and keen to discover her Jewish roots, she moves to Palestine, where she finds it equally hard to fit in.

Living on a Kibbutz, where she washes floors, disinfects urinals and works long hours, doesn’t suit her — until she (belatedly) discovers boys and sex. But then she moves to Tel Aviv, a brash modern city, and reinvents herself entirely, with a new name, new apartment and new job — as a hairdresser in a salon with a largely British clientele.

Through her work, she falls in with a crowd of women married to British policemen. She feels comfortable in their company because I “could be an Englishwoman”.

I understood how to behave with them. If they offered you a sandwich, I knew that it was customary to refuse the first time and then accept only when pressed, while amongst the Jews of Palestine, if you said no, you went hungry. It was relaxing never to have to wonder as I did when I was amongst my own kind, ‘What is going on? Why do they do things this way? Why do I, who am one of these people, not know how to be a Jew in a Jewish land?’

But the longer she stays in Tel Aviv, the more she adjusts to the Jewish ways and customs, and begins to comprehend the Jewish struggle for The Promised Land. When she falls in love with a handsome Jewish boy, she gets caught up in events much bigger than herself — and the story suddenly develops an unexpected thriller-ish aspect that had me furiously turning the pages.

Story of displacement

Caught between her new life and her old one, Evelyn’s story is as much about her coming-of-age than anything else. But dig deeper, and her story also mirrors the struggle of a new Jewish state trying to find its feet.

But I had come to the place where there was, mercifully, no past and in
which it was the duty and destiny of everyone to make the future, each
for himself and for his country.

I found Evelyn’s sense of displacement — never feeling English enough, not quite understanding the Jews — the most powerful aspect of the novel. But Evelyn’s experience is not unique: at the time Palestine was one of those places — flooded with refugees and displaced persons from the Second World War — “where everyone came from somewhere else and everyone had a story to tell and these stories were not always inspiring or lovely”. (For an Australian take on this experience, I highly recommend Alan Collin’s trilogy, A Promised Land?)

Her constant questioning of herself (she has a rich inner world) is only blinded when she falls in love, so that the person she should have been questioning most gets a free ride, the consequences of which are nefarious — and deadly.

And while the novel touches on issues of anti-semitism, the politics of displacement, the Holocaust and the silent, often bloody, struggle for a Jewish homeland, it’s not all darkness and fear. The heat and dust and brilliant sunshine of Palestine is almost a character in its own right. And the middle-class, largely British, clientele in the hairdressing salon offers much light relief — some of their conversations are hilarious.

A powerful read

When I Lived in Modern Times is one of those novels that initially feels simple — in tone, style and storyline — but the further you progress, the more you realise the author is dealing with complicated, occasionally controversial, and weighty subjects.

The narrator’s engaging, if occasionally self-centred, voice is key to the novel’s success — it is only when Evelyn’s eyes are truly opened to the world around her, and the way in which she has been used, that the full emotional force of the narrative hits you. It’s a splendid, entertaining and powerful read.

Note: at 99p on Kindle, this book was an absolute bargain — but for some weird reason the entire text was in italics, not the easiest of fonts to read.

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18 thoughts on “‘When I Lived in Modern Times’ by Linda Grant

  1. It’s a good mix of coming-of-age and the history of the modern birth of Israel. As Evelyn matures she begins to realise her life hasn’t been so bad after all; so many of those Jews who fled to Palestine after the war had survived some horrific things and had high hopes for the “promised land”.

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  2. I read this in a book group several years ago and it was very well received by us all. Then it was dramatised on BBC a couple of years ago – and very well too. Your review has reminded me of how good it is

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  3. I really enjoyed it. Entertaining but perceptive and educational too. I didnt know it had been dramatised. Must look into that. There must be a DVD kicking around somewhere.

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  4. I’ve read two Linda Grants (The Clothes on Their Back and We Had It So Good) and both featured that “sense of displacement” that you mention in this review. I think she uses it to very good effect as a means of illustrating the tensions in the broader worlds that are present in all three of these novels.

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  5. I bought We Had it so Good on the strength of your review, Kevin, and will get around to reading it at some point. I think she is one of those authors that appeals to both men and women.

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  6. She’s got five novels, Tanya, plus a stack of non-fiction too (she’s also a journalist), so you’ve got plenty of choice if you can’t find this book.

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  7. She did indeed. I love her descriptions of the newly built Tel Aviv — the architecture sounded fabulous. Of course, she also captured the racial tensions very well, too, and the tensions between different groups of Jews who wanted different things from their new homeland.

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  8. I read this one, “The Clothes on Our back” and “We had it so good”. I love them all but love this one you reviewed the most. Linda Grant is one of my favourite authors and you are right to say that the protagonist has a very rich inner life. I found the part about Evelyn and her boyfriend very sad.
    I wanted to read all her backlist. I am glad you like this book.

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  9. I have been meaning to read this book for years and years Kim, it is one of the books I am hoping to get to this year now I am working through the TBR more. I bought it because I wanted to take it to Tel Aviv with me and get a different perspective on a city I was in. I didnt read it then, but really want to know as it sounds even better than I had heard. Great review, makes me want to dig it out now.

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  10. I’ll have to go exploring your blog to check out your reviews…
    I have a copy of We Had it so Good and I must admit after reading this one I was more keen than ever to read it.

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  11. I think you’d like this, Simon. She describes Tel Aviv so vividly, I remember thinking, wow, I want to go and see it for myself. But then at the end of the story you find out that most of the amazing architecture she talks about has become ruined. So sad.

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