Saturday, 29 January 2011
We Had It So Good by Linda Grant
The novel's events are seen through the eyes of various people: primarily, Stephen and Andrea themselves and their children Max and Marianne. Because Andrea has trained as a psychotherapist she has privileged access to other pasts, among them those of her friend Clare and Stephen’s father Simon. These lives reflect the major considerations of the era – the immigrant experience, isolation chosen and involuntary, the impact of war and terrorism – alongside the everyday domestic existence of the liberal middle-class (that is, the book’s natural audience).
In interviews Grant has talked about the “toxic legacy” of the baby-boomer generation, the complacency which accepted the advantages provided by a liberal postwar society while making little effort to pass on those benefits to future generations. What happened to turn the idealism of the sixties into the selfishness of the eighties? Grant thinks we got our comeuppance with 9/11, and the start of the disaffection of the rest of the world with western arrogance.
Along the way, Grant has much of interest to observe about the ills of the current day, and our inability to find solutions to them: our fear of ageing, our creation of a “victim” society, our obsessions with health and normality (the quiet Max who is almost assaulted, in his view, with grommets to cure the loss of hearing that he has accommodated to is especially poignant, I felt). I was puzzled that Grant had left out the event which was, for some of us, an earlier assault on US and UK complacency, the Lockerbie air disaster – the more so since I see from the afterword that she talked with a member of the UK family group about the aftermath of terrorist attacks. My own experience of the events of 1988 suggest that western arrogance is not easily rocked, and that as new towers rise on the site of the World Trade Center, 9/11 will be accommodated along with the other events we prefer not to think about.
As I said, We Had It So Good is a book which makes you think, and offers an absorbing story in doing so, but if Grant has set out to turn our eyes inwards, to make us consider ourselves and our society, I’m despondent about the outcome. But I applaud the attempt, and recommend the book.
We Had It So Good is the first book chosen for the Virago Book Club.