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