Last week’s blogpost 2011 – My Year in Books was about the way certain novels become significant in our lives in a way which transcends the words on the page. A couple more of mine are The Line of Beauty (2004) by Alan Hollinghurst which awed me to the point of putting me off trying to write (ridiculous, I know – if everyone thought that way we’ve have nothing to read); and The Clothes On Their Backs (2008) by Linda Grant, which inspired me just as much and finally made me put pen to paper three years ago. But fiction is a bit like the stockmarket; past performance isn’t always a reliable guide to future performance. As I’ve said before, I approach new works by the authors I most respect with trepidation lest the spell should break, and it has happened before. Maybe that’s why it took me almost a year to read Grant’s latest novel We Had It So Good (I haven’t read the new Hollinghurst yet either…), but I needn’t have waited, it was never very likely that I’d be disappointed.
Linda Grant is one of the UK’s leading literary novelists and has won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the South Bank Show Literature Award and has made both the long and shortlists of the Man Booker Prize. We Had It So Good is a closely-observed reflection on the experiences of the postwar baby-boom generation. Stephen Newman is a Californian of Polish and Cuban descent who ends up spending most of his life in London after coming to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1968 and taking a tactical decision to marry his English girlfriend Andrea to avoid conscription into the Vietnam war. The book covers the full sweep of his life from when he ‘dressed up in Marilyn Monroe’s furs, made LSD at Oxford and (…) lived in an anarchist collective,’ before settling for a different cliché as a BBC TV producer with an expensive house in Islington, married to a psychotherapist, two children – living in a hermetic middle-class bubble he can’t see out of.
Stephen falls on his feet and neither deserves nor appreciates his good fortune but still manages to spend a lot of time feeling dissatisfied and baffled about the fact that (gasp!) he and his contemporaries didn’t rock the world or stay young forever as they’d planned. Grant succeeds in capturing the spirit of the times he lives through and it must be especially fascinating for readers of that vintage – and if you belong to Generation X, it will make you feel young! As a protagonist, Stephen is unempathetic and shallow in a way which reflects poorly on him as a human being but not on the author’s characterisation skills, which must be a hard thing to pull off. Does it matter if we don’t like him? I don’t think it does. I wouldn’t want to spend much time with any of the characters actually, but taken as a whole, I found this a really stimulating read which dares to raise big questions – more than I can mention here – about what is happening in the world and what we owe (or blame on) previous generations. It also exposes the role of sheer chance in life – a theme that’s preoccupied me for the last two years. If you belong to the kind of book club where people actually want a meaty discussion and not just to get drunk, this would be an excellent choice. (Not saying you can’t do both.)
It’s perhaps just as well that we are not confined to Stephen’s viewpoint. Whilst not hard going, We Had It So Good benefits from close reading. The narrative shows multiple perspectives and sometimes introduces new voices or elements which are not given context straight away. (The chapter Anniversary Lunch had too much head-hopping for my liking, but that’s a minor point.) Stephen’s story is interwoven with that of Andrea, their children Max and Marianne, friends Grace and Ivan, his father Simon… complicated relationships, like the ones in real lives. This is where the quality of Grant’s prose comes in; you sense that every word has been weighed and measured, and never to better effect than when she writes about the immigrant experience, a recurrent theme in her work in which she draws on her own family background. The novel gains in emotional intensity in the second half – Marianne’s impossible love affair touched me the most and could have made a book of its own and yes, I did begin to warm to Stephen when he reconnects with his elderly father. The conclusion about the parent-child relationships, most of them somehow dysfunctional, seems to be that all we know of our parents is what they tell us, which may not be true. And even if it is true, we may not believe it. The last few chapters have a contemplative, elegiac quality that I found beautiful and moving. At 60, it’s largely through loss that Stephen finally realises just how good he’s had it for so long; for him getting to that point has been a long journey but it’s hardly been a struggle.
I spend all day looking out of the window just a few miles from Islington and I’m happy to tell you the sky is not always grey.