Observer Review: Still Here By Linda Grant Essay, Research Paper
Longing to belong in LiverpoolStill HereLinda GrantLittle, Brown ?10.99, pp375Alix has been listening to Joseph, an architect, telling her about his style. ‘Makes you wonder what the definition of Jewish minimalism is,’ she remarked, lifting her coffee cup to her crimson mouth. ‘I suppose it would be, “I want the finest minimalism money can buy and I want it everywhere”.’That’s a typically Jewish joke but it’s the knowing tone that matters. It’s there too in the equally self-assured paragraphs Linda Grant has written for the press release accompanying Still Here. She explains the functions of her characters and the controlling metaphor and also tells us that, ’surprisingly, Liverpool has had no chronicler in literary fiction’ – which may come as news to Beryl Bainbridge.Grant is scarcely the first novelist to be wedded to a city – Anne Tyler writes in and out of the more careful corners of Baltimore, Armistead Maupin celebrates San Francisco – but Grant’s attachment to place has historical and cultural resonance in the context of generations of wandering European Jews longing to belong.Her exhilarating debut The Cast Iron Shore was largely set in Fifties left-wing America, but the scenes with the greatest punch were those depicting the young Liverpudlian life of a furrier’s daughter in wartime, and now Grant and her new heroine are making a comeback.As in Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, the book opens with adults assembling at their dying mother’s bedside. Forthright, 49 and unmarried – ‘I have a lust problem’ – Alix returns from France where she has lived having inherited a fortune from the sale of her mother’s cold cream cleanser business.After the funeral, her brother introduces her to attractive but married Joseph and, from then on, the chapters bounce between the two, who attract and repel each other like magnets. Alix’s mother’s final request that her children recover the family factory in Dresden sets up the arc of the novel with Alix struggling to reconcile past and present, while Joseph is constructing the future in the form of a state-of-the-art hotel which will revitalise Liverpool’s flagging fortunes.The trouble is, Grant has ideas above her (Lime Street) station. Her writing leans towards the worryingly schematic. Explaining her (overly symbolic) job, Alix tells Joseph how she finds disused synagogues. ‘I have to find out the history of it and of the community that worshipped there and what happened to them… once I have all this information it’s like I’m some kind of biographer, I have to recreate the place for the people we send out our mailshots to.’ That sums up Grant’s approach – in the more unleavened sections characters merely mouth her research about architecture or the city.Too often you can sense her laying down set-ups. One character undergoes a shocking facelift but the new face feels grafted on in more ways than one as it is less about character development and more to do with counterbalancing thematic concerns. Joseph sneers at the absurdity of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, but Grant delineates her protagonists with similar polarities: ex-Israeli soldier Joseph is all rigid emotional denial; outspoken Alix is alive with passionate spontaneity – although to Joseph she talks like a man.When she drops the hectoring, earnest journalist tone, the prose takes off. A vivid tennis game between Alix and Joseph crackles with energy. She’s so busy handling the literal element – describing the game and the players’ rivalry – that, for once, the metaphorical level is left to take care of itself. She’s equally good on charged-up sex scenes. The less seriously she takes herself – as in the irreverent memories of Alix’s younger self – the more relaxed and winning her writing becomes. But her voice dominates to debilitating effect.Predictably, Alix and Joseph wind up in Dresden confronting the past. In a phrase intended to be ironic, this cold cream heiress self-consciously observes, ‘The Nazis were fond of cleansing’, but to pull off a gag like that you have to have a much lighter touch. You can’t blame Grant for feeling unduly confident about her approach. After all, it inexplicably won her the Orange prize for When I Lived in Modern Times. But as her contrived dichotomies mesh, the almost audible sound of the author sighing with satisfaction casts a pall over the pages.