Saturday, 29 January 2011

We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

Drugs, living in squats, Britain and the 3-day week, the family hamster - if, like me, you’re about the same age as the characters in We Had It So Good, it’s a book which leads to a great deal of gazing off into space while you ponder your own experience in light of the events described. Linda Grant chooses to make her protagonist, Stephen, an American, thus allowing her to consider happenings on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the second half of the last century – faced with the prospect of being drafted to fight in Vietnam if he returns to the States, he opts instead for marriage with Andrea and life in London.

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.


Other reviews:
http://forbookssake.net/2011/01/17/we-had-it-so-good-by-linda-grant/
http://davidhblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/linda-grant-we-had-it-so-good-2011/

3 comments:

  1. I have this on my library reservation list, but from what you say about it I think I might add it to our book group list and wait and read it when it's turn comes round. It sounds exactly the sort of book that would keep us talking for hours.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Annie, it would be a great book club choice, there are just so many issues to talk about.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This sounds as if it could be interesting. I have read one earlier title by this author of which I do not recall much but I am tempted to try this one.

    ReplyDelete