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When I Lived in Modern Times
     

When I Lived in Modern Times

by Linda Grant
 

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Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction

In the spring of 1946, Evelyn Sert stands on the deck of a ship bound for Palestine. For the twenty-year-old from London, it is a time of adventure and change when all things seem possible.

Swept up in the spirited, chaotic churning of her new, strange country, she joins a kibbutz, then moves on to the

Overview

Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction

In the spring of 1946, Evelyn Sert stands on the deck of a ship bound for Palestine. For the twenty-year-old from London, it is a time of adventure and change when all things seem possible.

Swept up in the spirited, chaotic churning of her new, strange country, she joins a kibbutz, then moves on to the teeming metropolis of Tel Aviv, to find her own home and a group of friends as eccentric and disparate as the city itself. She falls in love with a man who is not what he seems when she becomes an unwitting spy for a nation fighting to be born. When I Lived in Modern Times is "an unsentimental coming-of-age story of both a country and a young immigrant . . . that provides an unforgettable glimpse of a time and place rarely observed" (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

Editorial Reviews

London Sunday Times
A beautifully written, passionate novel.
Independent on Sunday
Full of sharp humor, complex ironies and an acute eye for cultural clashes, this is a superb coming-of-age novel.
London Sunday Times
A beautifully written, passionate novel.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An unsentimental, iconoclastic coming-of-age story of both a country--Israel--and a young immigrant, Grant's first novel introduces an unusually appealing heroine, narrator Evelyn Sert, and provides an unforgettable glimpse of a time and place rarely observed from an unsparing point of view. Na ve and idealistic, 20-year-old Evelyn, an incipient Zionist, leaves London for Palestine in April 1946 under false pretenses. Devoid of useful skills, she barely survives a stint on a kibbutz. Later, in Tel Aviv, she gets a job in a hairdressing salon, passing herself off as Priscilla Jones, the wife of a British soldier. To her neighbors she acknowledges that she's a Jew, but she's puzzled that she has more in common with the British colonials than with the motley collection of Jews from many lands and widely disparate religious, social and economic backgrounds, all of them busy reinventing themselves. After falling in love with a chameleon-like man she knows as Johnny, who impersonates a British army officer, she's not really surprised to find that he's a terrorist with the Irgun underground, working cold-bloodedly to end the British Mandate. Unwittingly, Evelyn gives Johnny information that results in violence. The quiet force of this astonishingly mature novel comes in watching Evelyn's simplistic worldview gradually give way to disillusionment as she becomes aware of the moral ambiguities and paradoxes on all sides. Readers will be struck by the timeliness of Grant's narrative, for she captures the excitement and danger of a volatile society and the desperate measures of a homeless people convinced that they must create a state. The implications of this cautionary tale keep unfolding even after the bittersweet denouement. It's no wonder that this novel won the 2000 Orange Prize, beating out Zadie Smith's White Teeth. (Feb.) Forecast: The stark facts revealed in Tom Segev's One Palestine, Complete (Nonfiction Forecasts, Oct. 23) acquire a human face and a compelling voice in this fictional evocation of the period. The novel's relevance to current events provides a natural handle for booksellers, and Hollywood may see the potential in a story whose ramifications are reflected in today's headlines. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
This sophisticated, literary novel tells of a 20-year-old English girl's experiences in Palestine, just as the British rule there is coming to an end in 1946. Evelyn leaves London after the death of her mother, helped by her mother's lover to enter Palestine on an extended tourist visa at a time when Jews (and Evelyn is a Jew) were having a very difficult time getting there. (Think Exodus.) Evelyn is smart and creative, even if she is not very well educated. After a brief stint on a kibbutz, she finds an apartment in Tel Aviv and gets a job as a hairdresser, working on the hair of British matrons and passing herself off as a non-Jew whose husband is a British policeman in a nearby town. This position attracts the attention of the Jewish terrorists trying to get rid of the British, and Evelyn falls in love with Johnny, her contact. Her information helps the terrorists kidnap British citizens, but ultimately she has to go underground, Johnny is captured, and the life she wanted in Palestine becomes impossible. That part of the narrative ends before independence and the war between Arabs and Jews. The final section, in which Evelyn returns to Israel 50 years later, is satisfying for readers who like looking back on a life considering the choices made, the compromises considered, the tragedies, the complexities. Grant's writing is wonderfully understated, so when passion comes, and tragedy, it seems all the more vivid and powerful. The sexual scenes, for example, are briefly described but amazingly sensual. Evelyn's noting of the constant anti-Semitism of the British is hurtful and shocking, really, especially since 1946 was so soon after the Holocaust—you would think the Britishwould have had more compassion. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 2000, Plume, 260p., Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Claire Rosser; KLIATT
Library Journal
Displacement and identity, both of an individual and of a nation, are the themes of this novel by Linda Grant (Sexing the Millennium, LJ 4/1/94). The novel opens with a piece of evidence given before the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (July 8, 1947) by Chaim Weizmann: "If you ask what a Jew is, well, he is a man who has to offer a long explanation for his existence." The birth of the nation of Israel is the backdrop to the story of Evelyn Sert, a young English Jewish woman who is left rootless after the end of World War II and the death of her mother. On the advice of her mother's friend, she makes her way to Palestine, entering as a Christian tourist, and begins her new life working on a kibbutz. Evelyn's identity is protean, changing according to circumstance, and her growing awareness of the confusion and sense of displacement among the Jewish migr s, British Army of Occupation soldiers and their families, Arab settlers, and Zionists in Tel Aviv is mirrored in her own changes in name and appearance. The sounds, smells, and tastes of wartime London, desert kibbutzim, and urban Tel Aviv are evocatively described, and Evelyn's story is compelling. Winner of the Orange Prize for fiction in 2000; highly recommended for all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/00.] Kerie Nickel, St. Mary's Coll. of Maryland, St. Mary's City Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
British journalist Grant's first novel to be published in the US (after Remind Me Who I Am, Again, the memoir of her mother's dementia, p. 532) was a financial and critical success abroad, winning the Orange Prize for Fiction. The story is narrated by Evelyn, the illegitimate daughter of an Anglo-Latvian Jew. Evelyn's father is a vanished cipher known only from a photograph nearly 25 years old, but her mother is a very palpable presence, the mistress of a successful Jewish businessman in 1940s London and the owner of a hairdressing salon, where Evelyn sometimes works. When her mother has a nervous breakdown and dies,"Uncle" Joe, the businessman, suggests that Evelyn go to Palestine to help build a nascent Jewish homeland. Caught up in the many intrigues and cultural clashes of Palestine in the last days of the British Mandate, she finds herself bounced from a kibbutz to the burgeoning city of Tel Aviv, where she reinvents herself as a British hairdresser with an absent husband in the Army. Meanwhile, she falls into an affair with a dashing if secretive young man who may be working for the Irgun. Reduced to its basic plot elements this way, When I Lived in Modern Times sounds like the stuff of melodrama, the sort of foolish and sentimental fiction that is devoured by aging Hadassah ladies. Grant is a thinker, though, a writer who's fascinated by the way people construct and reconstruct their identities to fit circumstances, and her novel is actually rather cerebral in its approach to its material. She's extraordinarily good at capturing the feel and smell of '40s Tel Aviv, vividly re-creating the chaos of a medium-sized town on the verge of becoming a city. And she is no less adeptatcapturing the sensations of a young woman on the verge of adulthood. A thoughtful, often affecting rumination on the way history affects ordinary people (and vice versa).

From the Publisher
“A stunning accomplishment…A vivid account of an elusive piece of recent history”
-Chicago Sun-Times

“Informed, intelligent…vital, original. ”
-The New York Times

“Deeply moving…at once a beautifully rendered story of one woman’s coming of age, and a gripping portrait of the last days of British rule. ”
-Boston Globe

“Ms. Grant’s fast-paced novel succeeds on many levels. It recreates the historical era accurately with sophisicated prose and lively jests about the human condition.”
-Dallas Morning News

“Appealing…[When I Lived in Modern Times] offers an unsentimental view of a young woman’s coming-of-age in a paradoxically ancient and newborn land. [A] compelling tale of a Middle Eastern adventure.”
-US Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101563397
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
12/31/2002
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
1,026,286
File size:
330 KB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
When I look back I see myself at twenty. I was at an age when anything seemed possible, at the beginning of times when anything was possible. I was standing on the deck dreaming; across the Mediterranean we sailed, from one end to the other, past Crete and Cyprus to where the East begins. Mare nostrum. Our sea. But I was not in search of antiquity. I was looking for a place without artifice or sentiment, where life was stripped back to its basics, where things were fundamental and serious and above all modern.
This is my story. Scratch a Jew and you've got a story. If you don't like elaborate picaresques full of unlikely events and tortuous explanations, steer clear of the Jews. If you want things to be straightforward, find someone else to listen to. You might even get to say something yourself. How do we begin a sentence?
"Listen . . ."
A sailor pointed out to me a little ship on the horizon, one whose role as a ship was supposed to be finished, which had reached the end of its life but had fallen into the hands of those who wanted it to sail one last time. "Do you know what that is?" he asked me.
I knew but I didn't tell him.
"It isn't going to land," he said. "The authorities will catch them."
"Are you in sympathy with those people?"
"Yes, I'm sympathetic. Who wouldn't be? But they can't go where they want to go. It's just not on. They'll have to find somewhere else."
"Where?"
"No idea. That's not our problem, is it?"
"So you don't think the Zionist state is inevitable?"
"Oh, they'll manage somewhere or other. They always have done in the past."
This time it's different, I thought, but I kept my mouth shut. Like the people on the horizon, I was determined that I was going home, though in my case it was not out of necessity but conviction.
Then I saw it, the coast of Palestine. The harbor of Haifa assumed its shape, the cypress and olive and pine-clad slopes of Mount Carmel ascended from the port. I didn't know then that they were cypresses and olives and pines. I didn't recognize a single thing. I had no idea at all what I was looking at. I had come from a city where a few unnamed trees grew out of asphalt pavements, ignored, unseen. I could identify dandelions and daisies and florists' roses but that was all, that was the extent of my excursions into the kingdom of the natural world. And what kind of English girl doesn't look at a tree and know what type it is, by its bark or its leaves? How could I be English, despite what was written on my papers?
On deck, beside me, some passengers were crossing themselves and murmuring, "The Holy Land," and I copied them but we were each of us seeing something entirely different.
I know that people regarded me in those days as many things: a bare-faced liar; an enigma; or a kind of Displaced Person like the ones in the camps. But what I felt like was a chrysalis, neither bug nor butterfly, something in between, closed, secretive, and inside some great transformation under way as the world itself-in that strangest of eras just after the war was over-was metamorphosing into something else, which was neither the war nor a return to what had gone before.
It was April 1946. The Mediterranean was packed with traffic. Victory hung like a veil in the air, disguising where we might be headed next. 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.
We didn't know that a bitter winter was coming, the coldest in living memory in the closing months of 1946 and the new year of 1947. America would be frozen. Northern Europe would freeze. You could watch on the Pathé newsreel women scavenging for coal in the streets of the East End of London. I had already seen in the pages of Life magazine what was left of Berlin-a combination of grandeur and devastation, fragments of what looked like an old, dead civilization, the wreckage that was left in the degradation of defeat. I had seen people selling crumbs of what had once been part of a civilized life. A starving woman held out a single red, high-heeled shoe. A man tried to exchange a small bell for a piece of bread. A boy offered a soldier of the Red Army his sister's doll.
All across the northern hemisphere would be the same bitter winter. The cold that killed them in Germany would kill us everywhere. But winter was months away and I was on deck in balmy spring weather, holding the green-painted rail of the ship, watching the coast of Palestine assemble itself out of the fragrant morning air and assume a definite shape and dimension.
In the Book of Lamentations I had once read these words: Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens. Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine. The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn feast: all her gates are desolate: her priests sigh, her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness.
But all that was about to change. We were going to force an alteration in our own future. We were going to drive the strangers out, bury the blackened dead, destroy the immigration posts and forget our bitterness. There would be no more books of lamenting. Nothing like that was going to happen to us again. We had guns now, and underground armies, guerrilla fighters, hand grenades, nail bombs, a comprehensive knowledge of dynamite and TNT. We had spies in the enemies' ranks and we knew what to do with collaborators.
I was a daughter of the new Zion and I felt the ship shudder as the gangplank crashed on to the dock. I put on my hat and white cotton gloves and, preparing my face, waited to go ashore at the beginning of the decline and fall of the British Empire.

—Reprinted from When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Linda Grant. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“A stunning accomplishment…A vivid account of an elusive piece of recent history”
-Chicago Sun-Times

“Informed, intelligent…vital, original. ”
-The New York Times

“Deeply moving…at once a beautifully rendered story of one woman’s coming of age, and a gripping portrait of the last days of British rule. ”
-Boston Globe

“Ms. Grant’s fast-paced novel succeeds on many levels. It recreates the historical era accurately with sophisicated prose and lively jests about the human condition.”
-Dallas Morning News

“Appealing…[When I Lived in Modern Times] offers an unsentimental view of a young woman’s coming-of-age in a paradoxically ancient and newborn land. [A] compelling tale of a Middle Eastern adventure.”
-US Weekly

Meet the Author

Linda Grant is one of England's leading journalists and writers. The author of three previous books, including The Cast Iron Shore (winner of the David Higham Prize for best first novel of 1995) and Remind Me Who I Am, Again, her acclaimed account of her mother's dementia. When I Lived in Modern Times won the Orange Prize - established in 1996 to honor novels of excellence, originality and accessibility by women writers - in June 2000, and will be her first work of fiction published in the United States.

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