Saturday 3 December 2016

Review: We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

Virago, €14.99, hardback

Published 12/02/2011 | 05:00

It is the job of children to reject the values of their parents, and perhaps no generation has done this with quite the whole-hearted enthusiasm of the baby boomers. But even the boomers were not immune to the imperatives of time and biology. They had children, they became middle-aged -- and what happened then?

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This is the question that Linda Grant examines in her new novel. Her hero, Stephen Newman, is a first-generation American -- the son of a Polish-Jewish father and a Cuban mother. His parents long for him to acquire a college education -- that laissez-passer into the world of opportunity. And he does them proud, winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.

Stephen finds Oxford disappointing: "History's insistence on not getting out of the way was depressing." Still, he works hard, makes friends, meets an English girl, Anthea, with red hair and bad teeth, and develops a certain expertise in manufacturing LSD.

To do this he tears out some pages from a library book -- an offence for which he is duly sent down. At the same time, his draft papers for Vietnam arrive, so he takes the expeditious step of marrying Anthea, and they settle into a 1970s version of domesticity, in a London squat.

Respectability inexorably follows. Time passes. The bright promise of the future darkens: "I don't understand, Stephen thought. How does it come to this? We were supposed to be so special, we were going to change everything and it turns out we're just the same."

Stricken by the apprehension of her own mortality, Anthea has a similar agonised apercu, realising that "everything was a game of chance" -- that there is no pattern to life, merely a series of banal accidents.

Grant's novel coolly espouses this philosophy, relying for its emotional impact on the painstaking accumulation of detail rather than a driving narrative. Her delineation of character is judicious rather than passionate -- so that even characters in extremis live out their dramas at a safe distance from the reader's heart.

Stephen and Anthea's contemporaries will certainly feel a thrill of recognition at Grant's tale. Younger readers, while admiring the skill with which she depicts the disappointed hopes of a generation, may feel sympathy with Stephen's son, Max, who says that: "These are just stories they tell us to make us think that once upon a time they were interesting."

Jane Shilling's memoir about middle age The Stranger in the Mirror is out now

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