When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, E.R Dutton, $32.95
Winner of Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize, this novel, set in 1946 in Tel Aviv, seems too much about modern times and not enough about living. Although a compelling tale of an isolated woman in pre-State Israel, the narrative takes a backseat to the idealism and ideologies of time and place.
We experience Tel Aviv through the eyes of a twenty-year-old orphan. Evelyn Sert, daughter of a Jewish hairdresser, who grew up in unconventional circumstances in London’s Soho, makes her way to Palestine in spite of immigration restrictions and the naval blockade. After a short stint on a kibbutz in the Galilee, she moves to Tel Aviv and settles in as a hairdresser ministering to the needs of British military wives. But the author is more interested in exploring prestate Israel in the context of modernism and history than in developing Evelyn’s story and identity.
Evelyn comes into contact with stock characters: the bitter yekke landlord, the feminist German refugee neighbor, anti- Semitic British soldiers and their wives, and the tough, mysterious boyfriend who is a secret member of the Irgun. These characters deliver little more than ideological monologues, which is a pity. It would have been interesting to see how Evelyn might have formed her identity and made Israel her home through day-to-day interaction with these characters. Instead, the novel suddenly and disturbingly shifts gears, galloping along at a thriller-like pace before returning to the more ruminative style of its beginning.
It is clear that Grant researched her subject thoroughly. One of this book’s pleasures is her description of the young Tel Aviv with its white Bauhaus buildings, debilitating heat and blinding Mediterranean light. But the reader still gets the feeling that Grant is new to her subject. Indeed, it was a first visit to Tel Aviv in 1998 that inspired Grant to write this novel. Despite its shortcomings, thanks to When I Lived in Modern Times we are able to visit the Tel Aviv of 55 years ago, a rare treat.