There is a story that Donald Ogden Stewart, one of the Algonquin set, visited London in the mid-Thirties, and had an urge to learn what Communism was. As one does, he asked the doorman at Claridge’s to recommend a book. He read it diligently on board ship. By the time he reached New York he was converted. He rushed his wife straight from their hotel to a meeting in Union Square. Only one problem – her outfit. ‘It was a mink cape,’ she recalled, ‘with brown satin lining.’ At his suggestion, she turned it inside out.
Linda Grant’s heroine, Sybil, is a soul mate to that lady. She is not just a fur owner but the daughter of a furrier, carefully brought up in prewar Liverpool, the indulged pet of a Jewish father and a mother she takes to be Dutch. To her mother, the past is a blank slate. Only the present matters – indeed, only the ephemeral: the hang of a hem, the shade of a lipstick. Father is similarly devoted to surfaces: he knows the quality of a pelt from the merest touch. But he tells Sybil one interesting thing. She is an animal, he says; her task in life is to become a human being. Grant’s impressive first novel follows her efforts in that line.
Mother, it turns out, is a Gentile, and German. So what kind of a Jew can Sybil be? Where is her home? Is it on a shifting, contingent shoreline, in coastal cities where the inhabitants take to the sea when the land does not suit them; or is it in the centre of a continent, enduring Minnesota winters amid an ox-like populace?
What is to happen to a reckless sexy girl who goes off to America chasing after a most unlikely man? Stan is a Toxteth Catholic with Indian blood, a con man, a bisexual. When he vanishes, there is Julius, a black man, a humourless left-wing autodidact who happens to be good in bed. Under his tutelage, she joins the Communist Party and puts her furs into storage, beginning her ‘great romance with moral grandeur’.
It is evident from the first page that Linda Grant, a journalist, is an accomplished novelist too. Her prose is supple and rhythmic, her images uncluttered, her dialogue a model of crispness, efficiency and wit. This is a capacious and wide-ranging book, not just about individuals but about the history they move through.
Whether the scene is Liverpool in the Blitz, a potato-chip factory in the prairies or a seedy hotel room in Hanoi, the writing has the immediacy, the solid verisimilitude, that is produced only by the combination of sound research and a vivid but disciplined imagination. The danger of a wide canvas is that the characters become coarse or emblematic, mere vehicles for points of view, and that grace of style is sacrificed. But Grant moves easily from the general to the particular, approaching each character with insight and a tart sympathy.
Sybil, the former fashion plate, submits to ‘party discipline’ and goes to work in a factory. In the McCarthy years, she goes underground. She is adept at acting a part, assuming a role; it is what she has always done for the men in her life. Her left-wing credo is naive, sentimental, but necessary to her. She does what she’s told, she does what it takes, to attain some sense of self-worth, some sense of connection. She is a woman of limited imagination, and the Marxist spirit limits her still further. She recounts the plots of novels to Julius, and ‘he would show me how the characters were right or wrong in what they did’. The ideals on display are firmly of their time. Defining the narrow range of his sympathies, Julius tells her: ‘Be sure and never pay any attention to anything a faggot has to say.’
But this is no trite tale of disillusionment. ‘Atoning for the vast sin of my superficiality’, Sybil sticks to the party even after Stalin’s exposure. Grant makes this comprehensible, and her method is always economical, ironical; we do not have to like Sybil, only to observe her. Perhaps the last forty pages have an overload of recapitulation, explanation, but it is a small fault in a complex, ambitious book. We do not leave Sybil until the present day, for she survives into a world where animal rights protesters hand her leaflets on the street, and public opinion suggests a fresh reason why she should put away her furs. The politics of fashion, fashions in politics – they have at times been hard to distinguish.