I must have read the name Linda Grant at some time in 2002 but definitely in 2008 since I always read the Man-Booker Prize short list when it comes out and Grant was long-listed in 2002 for her third novel Still Here, and short listed for her fourth novel The Clothes on Their Backs in 2008, but the name only impinged on my brain last month when her first, The Cast Iron Shore was gifted to me.
It’s the first read of my ‘to read’ pile for 2015 (see previous blog).
It’s the story of Sybil Ross, the only daughter of a Jewish furrier from Liverpool and his German wife, who was born and raised before and during the Second World War. Her mother is crazy about fashion, taste and style; her father equally so but in particular about furs: a woman isn’t a woman without a fur. The young Sybil is raised to be a fashion plate with little time or space for her brain.
Her life is dominated, and determined by men; first her father, or more aptly, her mother’s attitude to her father; then a bi-sexual sailor and baker, “a tearaway”, an opportunist, Stan, with skin the colour of milk coffee; and Julius, a reformed African-American hood who becomes immersed in the work, ideology, and expectations of the Communist Party. She has always liked men of a darker hue.
She first met Stan in Liverpool’s Sefton Park, late summer 1938, “I wore a shantung jacket over a mauve box-pleated skirt” with hair styled like Veronica Lake making her, “as usual” older than her childish years. Stan had a camera pointed at her. She always likes to be admired. Even in her sixties, when she crosses her still-shapely legs, in company and notices men looking, she stays exactly where she is and lets them. She goes where Stan goes; she has sex with him because he asks. She goes with him to America.
Julius is cut from a very different cloth and because he’s a communist, she becomes a communist and her middle years are defined by gestetner machines, rallies, leaflet-runs, and drop-in centres and when asked to speak about her working experiences as a shop-assistant in a fashion house she has no idea how to do it; no understanding of what she does, intellectually, when she sells something. She’s a worker without a voice and ripe for the CP who want to do nothing except give workers one.
“I myself have done as much as I can, all my life, to skate along on the surface of things.”
When Stan walks back into her life she goes off with him, because he asks, to Canada where Sybil has an affair with Stan’s best friend.
Her later years take her to the world “buying things cheap, selling dear” – antiques, jewellery, houses. She does alright for herself: a capitalist at heart.
“I know exactly what I am. A vain and shallow woman, though as far as I am concerned, it could have been so much worse.” A sensualist, in her dotage she gives a homeless boy, crouched in a doorway, a ten pound note because he is so handsome.
A distant relation asks her to take in a second cousin because she has the room. The idea of a man again living in her house, at 62, fills her with delight and so she fills her flat with freesias and does her yoga exercises in the nude. Twice.
In the final scene, Stan and Sybil, meet back in Liverpool, both in their 70s, she wearing furs again and both confessing to using the other: while Sybil was having an affair with Stan’s best friend, Stan was having an affair with the best friend’s wife. They were cut from the same cloth.
It’s a grand story of a woman’s life in the second half of the twentieth century, but like most people history, politics, and missed opportunities, travel in the background as people deal with their own kitchen events, justify their mistakes, and hope something better is just around the corner.
If our final years amount to a collection of outcomes prescribed by our choices made when we were younger then who we are in those final years is who we really are. For Sybil furs, a perm, matching accessories, and money in the bank is who she really is despite what she tried to make of herself because some man suggested it.
Grant writes in the first person, the most reader-friendly voice writing gurus will tell you, but in this work there is a disconnection. Sybil, the character, is forever described, even by herself, as “dumb”, “shallow”, and “vain” but the narrator is none of these things. However, by using the first person, the narrator IS the character: it is the character telling her story. How can the narrator be intelligent, insightful, and understanding when the character is not? This is a drawback to the reading of this book. There’s a feeling of unease that the writer is creating an unauthentic character and not the character telling her story.
However, finally, Sybil makes an appeal to the reader, “I am an atheist. I cannot appeal to God, only my fellow man. I set out my life before you, for judgement. Three injunctions. Self-awareness, social justice, the longing of every Jew in exile to find a home. Have I succeeded in any of it? You know my story now. You decide.”