book review: When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant

When I Lived in Modern TimesThe backstory: When I Lived in Modern Times won the Orange Prize in 2000.

The basics: Set at the end of World War II, When I Lived in Modern Times is the story of Eve, a young Jewish woman born and raised in London who finds herself alone in this world after the death of her mother (she has never known her father.) Her "Uncle Joe," a man her mother has had an affair with for years but who has a family of his own, encourages her to embrace her Jewishness and join the displaced persons flocking to Palestine.

My thoughts: I read Linda Grant's most recent novel, We Had It So Good (my review), earlier this year and loved it. I was surprised when it didn't make the Orange Prize or the Booker Prize longlist. As I read, I couldn't help comparing the two novels, even though they are quite different. There are some striking similarities, however. When I think of Linda Grant, I can't help but think of the impressive scope of these two novels. Both are well under 300 pages, yet both feel epic in their spans of time, place and wisdom.

I found Eve's story utterly fascinating. She is a woman without family, career or direction. She journeys to a place that in some ways does not exist. She is both British and Jewish, yet feels somewhat outcast amongst both the Jews and the ex-patriot British in Palestine. In Eve there is the hope of future as endless: she can go anywhere and do anything, but there is also the agony of reality. When she arrives in Palestine, she finds herself  to be lacking relevant skills.

I read When I Lived in Modern Times after Far to Go (my review), and I think being entrenched in World War II voyage made the reading experience somewhat more intense. Grant takes a unique approach to historical fiction. If you lived in an historical vacuum, you likely would enjoy When I Lived in Modern Times, but you would miss much of its brilliance.
"Fifty years later it's so easy, with hindsight, to understand what was happening but you were part of it then. History was no theme park. It was what you lived. You were affected, whether you liked it or not."
Grant relies on her readers knowing modern world history. Understanding the state of Jewishness post-World War II and knowing the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations brings immense depth and perspective to this novel.

Favorite passage: "I felt as if we were all half here and half somewhere else, deprived of our native languages, stumbling over an ugly ancient tongue. We knew that we were to be remade and reborn and we half did and half didn't want to be. We were caught up in a plan to socially engineer our souls and this was being carried out by men who seemed like the distant gods on Mount Olympus or Valhalla, the deities such as David Ben-Gurion and the others from the Jewish agency who were smelting the Jewish future in which we would all be poured, like so many alloys in the melting pot of immigrant life, to emerge as molten, liquid, golden Jewish humanity."

The verdict: When I Lived in Modern Times is every bit as brilliant, in story, scope and language, as We Had It So Good is, yet I simply didn't love it quite as much. I am of the opinion Linda Grant is a literary genius with a knack for bringing modern history alive in blissfully short, yet fully developed novels.

Rating: 4.5 stars
Length: 258 pages
Publication date: January 25, 2001 (it's in paperback now)
Source: interlibrary loan (sadly neither my academic nor my public library had a copy)

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  1. This book seems like it would go hand in hand with Displaced Persons, which I just reviewed. A lot of the same issues exist in both, particularly the plight of displaced persons after WWII and their choice to migrate to Palestine. Very interesting review. I am glad that you enjoyed this one. It sounds like I would too!

  2. This sounds marvelous -- while not exactly related, it makes me think it might pair nicely with When We Danced on Water. I'm adding this to the ever-growing TBR!

  3. I am always amazed when authors can make a relatively short book say so much. Love that with those books there's no feeling of being overwhelmed which can sometimes prevent me from picking it up in the first place.

  4. I wasn't too curious about this author's previous book, but this one sounds so wonderful. There is so much about the main character that jumps out to me.

  5. I had been seeing this book flash on your upcoming books sidebar and the cover was captivating me. I am happy to see it was so good. The topics it covers are ones that always interest me so I will have to check it out.


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