Linda Grant – When I Lived In Modern Times

08Aug09

The year is 1946, Israel doesn’t exist yet, and Tel Aviv is part of Palestine. World War II has just ended, but, its aftermath continues, as the global map is changing. and colonialism is coming to an end.

Evelyn Sert, a twenty year old hairdresser from Soho (London), sails to Palestine to be part of the Zionist movement, as Israel is born. Her mother has just died after a series of strokes, and her mother’s lover, Uncle Joe, arranges for her to leave London, with ample money, and the dream of being part of a historical movement for all Jews.

Thus, starts the story:

This is my story. Scratch a Jew and you’ve got a story. If you don’t like elaborate pictursques full of unlikely events and torturous explanations, steer clear of the Jews. If you want things to be straightforward, find someone else to listen to. You might even get to say something yourself. How do we begin a sentence?

Listen…

After spending twenty years bounded by Soho in the east, and Hyde Park in the west, Evelyn was a self-proclaimed ‘west-end girl’, and her initial reaction to Palestine is that of excitement, and alarm. Unaccustomed to the heat, defecating while squatting, and telling Jews from Arabs, who looked strangely identical in their summer outfits, one can hardly blame her. However, when she moves into the kibbutz, she is swayed by their ideals and the road the diaspora is taking. However, she is incapable of carrying out the hard menial tasks, in the heat, and decides to  make her way to Tel Aviv.

At a cafe, en route to Tel Aviv, she meets Johnny, who tells her to “hop on” to his motor bicycle, and he’ll ensure she gets there in a flash. And so she does. She moves into an apartment, and finds a job as a hairdresser – the first thing she does is dye her hair a platinum blonde. This is beautiful symbology, for the rebirth of Evelyn as Priscilla goes hand-in-hand with the birth of Israel as a Zionist nation, as she spies on the British who come to the salon.

As things go, she gets romantically involved with Johnny, and while he tries to keep her at arm’s length from some of his activities, insisting she doesn’t want to know about them, she does get sucked into them, and thus we see another flash of history – of how things worked in a country on the verge of being born, but still being a British colony.

This is a fascinating book, full of metaphors and symbols from probably one of the most compelling times in our history. Be it the hairdresser reference mentioned above, or the stark white building complexes where Evelyn lived, which seem to signify purity and idealism, as the birth of a dream is realized.

The 1940s will always be remembered for World War II, Nazism, and the bombings at Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Linda Grant herself says:

We usually think of the 1940s as the war years but that was only 50 per cent of it. From 1945, the whole political map was changing, colonialism was coming to an end, people – either refugees or demobbed soldiers – were trying to go home or find homes to go to. It was an extraordinary period both of flux but also a time when people were more interested in the future than the past (how different from now) and none more so than the Jews, for whom the past was a very bad memory indeed.

I’ve read a lot about that era, but this is the first book I’ve read about the birth of a country, which continues to play an important role in the political map today, and I found myself wondering: why haven’t I read more about this movement?

Evelyn’s character itself is a contradiction of sorts, as she struggles to find an identity: be it conforming to the Jews who she wants to be like, or hang out with the British, who she finds it easier to associate with, due to her upbringing in London. It’s a coming-of-age novel, as for the first time, she has to make decisions for herself, and is oft’ confused and sometimes decides to do things against her better judgement.

However, her relationship with Johnny seems far-fetched, and one has to wonder if Evelyn is actually as naive as some of the events in the book make her out to be. Does she honestly not contemplate the consequences of her actions, or does she not realize the gravity of them?

Rating: 3.5

Have you read this book? Or, have you read any other books on Israel and Palestine? Do you recommend any of them?

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2 Responses to “Linda Grant – When I Lived In Modern Times”

  1. This sounds interesting. I like books about Israel and Palestine, though I haven’t read much. The last one I did was Edeet Ravel’s Ten Thousand Lovers, which I loved.

    • This is the first book I’ve read about Israel-Palestine, and it was really interesting – specially when you kind-of get to see how the state of Israel was born, and how colonialism came to an end.

      Ten Thousand Lovers sounds interesting – am quite curious to read more about Israel in the 70s as well. Just added it to my Amazon wishlist.


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