The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant

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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.”

My ‘To Read’ pile to begin 2015

My 'to read' pile. The other book is Colm Toibin's essays on Henry James. Toibin is never far away.
My ‘to read’ pile. The other book is Colm Toibin’s essays on Henry James. Toibin is never far away.

Happy New Year and welcome to 2015: another year of reading and writing; but first the reading. As you can see from the picture my reading for 2015 begins with rather an eclectic batch. This was not planned, well, not all of it was planned. Here’s a little run-down on the list – to be read in no particular order – gleaned from the covers, a little Google search and information I’ve acquired through osmosis.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Herman_Koch

I have a dear friend, an Irishman living in Brussels, who visits the island where I live twice a year and being a book-worm himself he brings me novels I wouldn’t otherwise have heard about. My to-read list contains several of his gifts, and The Dinner is one of them. I like to think of him as my Book Fairy. Herman Koch is a Dutch writer and actor and his sixth novel, The Dinner (2009), is his most successful, having been translated into 21 languages; it came out in English in 2012. Two couples meet at a stylish restaurant in Amsterdam for dinner. Each has a teenage son who, together, have committed a horrific act, caught on camera and beamed into living rooms all over the country. The New York Times reviewer called it “a clever, dark confection, like some elegant dessert fashioned out of entrails.” Australia’s Christos Tsiolkas, who, by the way, is doing very well in Europe since the great success of The Slap, is quoted on the jacket, “A riveting, compelling and deliciously uncomfortable read… This novel is both a punch in the guts and also a tonic. It clears the air. A wonderful book.” Can’t wait!

Home by Frank Ronan

Frank Ronan

Another from the Book Fairy, but this time from an Irish author, Frank Ronan who also writes a monthly column for the magazine Gardens Illustrated; Home is his 7th book and came out in 2002. “Born into a cabbage-growing, peace-loving 1960s commune, Coorg is declared, courtesy of a favourable reading of the I Ching, to be the new Messiah… startling and often hilarious,” says the blurb on the back courtesy of the Irish Times.

The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower

Elizabeth Harrower

I was shocked when a recent New Yorker edition arrived, and as usual, I checked out the “Books” section first, and I saw my favourite literary critic, James Woods, devoting a whole article to the re-release of the five novels of an Australian writer called Elizabeth Harrower, who, according to Woods, was alive and well and living in Sydney. She’s 84. I had never heard of her! The very next day I found The Long Prospect in my local second-hand book shop and in the new re-released edition by Text Publishing. Apparently she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago and now can’t be bothered with writing. She wrote 5 novels between 1957 and 1971 but withdrew the last, In Certain Circles, some months before publication, lodged the manuscript with the National Library of Australia and washed her hands of the whole writing thing; until, Michael Heyward, of Text, came along and persuaded her to let him re-publish the lot in 2012. All five are about female characters trapped in tempestuous relationships with a charismatic bully; all male except for this one where the bully is female, the hateful Lillian Hulm.

The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant

Linda Grant

Linda Grant is a British novelist and journalist and her first novel. The Cast Iron Shore (another from the Book Fairy) was her first, published in 1995. She has won numerous prizes (The Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 for When I lived in Modern Times) and was on the long-list for the Man-Booker Prize in 2002 for her third novel Still Here and short listed for the same prize for her fourth The Clothes on Their Backs in 2008. Again, I’m ashamed to say, her name was new to me when the book landed in my hands only recently. It looks historical with a female protagonist who is raised ‘as an empty-headed fashion plate’ but a secret revealed during the Liverpool blitz of the Second World War changes her life and leads her to ‘a seedy hotel room in Hanoi’ and ‘a potato-chip factory in the prairies’, among many other locations, and ultimately to ‘a final choice’.

After Dark by Haruki Murikami

Haruki Murakami

I’ve always been a little afraid of Murikami. I don’t read fantasy or science fiction – I’m a literary realist, I think – but I’ve always been drawn to him, curious, as well – he’s on everyone’s lips – but his books are so big. This one isn’t: I’m putting my toe in the water. It’s his 11th and came out in 2004. “A sleek, gripping novel of encounters set in Tokyo during the spooky hours between midnight and dawn.

My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain

Nuala O'Faolain
I’ve just read Nuala O’Faolain’s (Noo la O fway lorn) famous memoir Are You Somebody? and fell in love with her way with words. This is a novel which came out in 2001 after her memoir and is about an Irish travel writer who leaves all that she has behind and returns to Ireland to write a book based on an old scandal of the mid-nineteenth century: an affair between the wife of an English landlord and her Irish servant, but what she really wants to understand is passion itself. I’m curious to read her fiction having only experienced her memoir.

The Moon of Jupiter by Alice Munro

Alice Munro
Although I write short stories occasionally I don’t read them very often but when Alice Munro, a Canadian, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 I thought it’s time: she is a prolific short story writer, mainly because, as she explains in her introduction to the Vintage edition of her Selected Stories, “When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children … it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time … so I got into the habit of writing short stories.” I’ve read several since BF brought me this collection of her work, and she is not so much interested in the interior life of her female characters but more in the heady and extravagant thoughts around that interior life. One of her characters, Lydia, in a story called Dulse is forever judging, pitting, herself against pleasing the men in her life. Every man she meets she thinks in terms of what would it be like to be with that man; and then she meets a man who is nothing like any other, who is so self-contained ‘alone’ is all he can be. She envies him. “What a lovely durable shelter he has made for himself.” And yet another man, one she has fantasised about, gives her a parting gift “Yet look how this present slyly warmed her, from a distance.” The gift? Eatable seaweed: dulse.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles

When my partner and I left Australia in 2010 we shipped 25 boxes of books, this one included, and not much else, but lost the lot so it’s good to get another copy to take its place. Thank you BF. I came to Paul Bowles via his extraordinary wife, Jane Bowles, whom Tennessee Williams called the ‘greatest writer of the English language’. Paul started out as a serious composer – studying with Aaron Copland – in New York in the 1940s (I’m playing his music as I write this) and this, his first novel, and most successful, came out in 1949. He died in Tangiers in 1999 aged 88. A story about three American travellers in the deserts and cities of North Africa after World War II, but it is really about how the American incomprehension of alien cultures ultimately destroys such cultures. It was filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990 starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich, and in which Bowles appears. Looking forward to revisiting this one.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggars

Dave Eggers

Every since Dave Eggars, an American writer, began his career with his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2000, I believed the title. He’s a writer, publisher, screenwriter, editor, designer, philanthropist, journalist … Smarty Pants! He looms large. His books are so dense, heavy – in weight I mean, important, significant, worthy. Anyway, this one is non-fiction about a Syrian-American, a Muslim, who rides out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The theme is similar, I’m led to believe as Bowles’, The Sheltering Sky: the inability of white Americans to mentally process ‘the other’.

The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton

Hugo Hamilton
Hugo Hamilton is another Irish writer and this is a memoir that came out in 2003 but apparently free of the Catholic victim-hood, poverty and misery of the Irish memoir popularised by the likes of Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame, and as Hermione Lee says in The Guardian, “it’s shaped like a fiction, told, as if naively, in the language of a child.” “To read The Speckled People is to remember why great writing matters,” adds Joseph O’Connor in the Daily Mail.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve always wanted to read this book but have never got around to it. I would always pick it up in book shops, hold it, flick through it. An American, she began publishing in 1988 and this one came out in 1998, her eighth work and, I think, her most famous. I mentioned to a friend that I had seen it in the local bookshop. “Get it,” she said. “It’s great.” So I did. That’s all it took. I was primed. Another book about a white American NOT dealing with ‘the foreign’ but as told through the eyes of the women in the family of a stubborn missionary in West Africa in the 1950s.