Novel of the week

When I Lived in Modern Times

Linda Grant <em>Granta, 261pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 1862073341

Evelyn, our narrator and heroine, is a young Londoner who ups and offs to turbulent Palestine in 1946. The Jewish Agency tells her that she can get in on a tourist visa simply by pretending not to be Jewish, so she does. Life on a kibbutz proves too much like hard work, so she tries Tel Aviv. On reaching the brand new Bauhaus city, she at once lands herself a nice flat, a hairdressing job and a glamorous terrorist boyfriend. She gets a guilty thrill from passing him the names and addresses of her British clients so that the Irgun can kidnap or assassinate its colonial-oppressor husbands. And she tells him which hairdressing chemicals have explosive potential, so that he can steal them for use in stunts such as the infamous King David Hotel bombing. What a big experience for a girl.

"I was moving through history, I was in it . . . I was no longer adorning the surfaces of reality but altering its internal structure . . ." Unfortunately, we are meant to take this silly little cow at her own dead serious estimation of herself. Some of the surrounding characters, such as her landlord and fellow tenants, are nicely and humorously drawn, but the colonial types and the boyfriend are cardboard, and Evelyn is one of those maddening, solipsistic, narcissistic gawdelpuses who bedevil so much of women's fiction.

Someone once described Ally McBeal as "eminently slappable". In Evelyn's case, a slap would not suffice, nor yet a sound, round-the-clock thrashing with a sack of wet straw. But all that actually happens to her, when a British detective blows her cover, is that he politely puts her on a plane out. The author treats him as if he were Hannibal Lecter. After all, Evelyn was determined that she "would never leave Palestine, this strange, violent, mixed-up place . . . Where life was chaotic, because that is what life is . . . where Europe ended and the East began."

Platitudes such as this occur quite often. "The political map was changing." "The British imperial identity was disintegrating in front of us." "People think that suffering ennobles, but they're wrong." "Is there anything sweeter in the world than lying with your head on the chest of your lover, smoking cigarettes after you have made love . . . ?" "What is the eternal feminine that men love so much? Silence, Mystery . . ."

Only in the last two examples is there any ironic distance between the author and the narrator, a very young member of a less enlightened generation; but even then it's employed as an excuse. Evelyn's pre-feminist, man-dependent naivety was what led her into terrorism, so she is not to blame, the boyfriend is.

To show her good faith, Evelyn, looking back in old age, kindly mentions the indigenous Arabs and "the great wrong" the Zionists did them. This wrong, she says, was to treat them as an abstract problem. In fact, it was ethnic cleansing, as the secular left in Israel freely admits, but Linda Grant skirts the issue - not quite what you'd expect from a Guardian journalist. Still, the novel has readability and immediacy. Without straining for effect, Grant can make you feel the heat and smell the sea. Her reconstruction of a long-vanished Tel Aviv does not seem like worked-over research notes; it seems real and present. There is good social detailing: for example, the morose landlord's sideline as a doll repairer - the controlled rents don't bring in enough, and his German law qualifications are no use here - or prissy Mrs Kulp's outrage when the Paras decline to question her as a terror suspect because she doesn't look young enough.

The blurb speaks of an "erotically charged love story", but the sex scenes are tastefully dull. More moving are Evelyn's recollections of growing up in Soho, and of her dead mother. The many admirers of Grant's memoir about her own mother, Remind Me Who I am Again, should find plenty to admire here, too. Provided they can put up with Evelyn.

Hugo Barnacle is a novelist and critic

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis