We Had It So Good by Linda Grant
The title of Man Booker Prize nominee Linda Grant’s new novel, and the manuscript cover depicting a John Lennon lookalike and his laughing blonde companion lounging in the grass, quite perfectly evoke the nostalgic, frequently languid mood of this story of the life of a couple.
At the outset of We Had It So Good, it is Stephen’s father, an immigrant orphan-turned-furrier, who sets the course of his son’s life; Si Newman “believed his son needed basic survival instincts . . . The weak . . . were prey for the carrion eaters. His own parents, he said, had been turned back from Ellis Island, diseased with tuberculosis, the chalk cross on their backs crucifying them.” Thus the young man is dispatched on a series of maritime expeditions, working as a bellboy on cruise ships.
Though Si thinks like a manual worker, he has reverence for education, and his quaint response to his son’s announcement that he is bound for Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship has a touching authenticity. (Conversely, the truth of Stephen’s future assertion that he shared petit-fours with a university-bound Bill Clinton on the SS United States is a matter of debate for his skeptical offspring.)
Oxford is where Stephen meets Andrea, who becomes the mother of his children Marianne and Max and over the course of their marriage evolves from a plump redhead to a lithe blonde. Though she is, like her husband and children, accorded her own narrative interludes, throughout We Had It So Good she remains somewhat unreadable, as though viewed through cloudy glass. Her opacity may be fitting, for Andrea is a successful psychologist who takes seriously her task of drawing out the problems and anxieties of others.
One target of her professional ministrations is the reticent Grace, a college friend to whom Andrea remains almost inexplicably devoted. Scarred and septic, Grace’s decline and its effect on others, and the slow unveiling of her story over the decades-long course of the novel is one of the riches of We Had It So Good.
Stephen and Andrea’s lives as young parents are canvassed only briefly, in favour of the development of Max and Marianne, who find pleasure and pain in odd places and seem, like their parents, to be islands unto themselves. The young Max is deaf for years before Marianne breaks the news to her oblivious parents, to Andrea’s guilty horror – how could she have failed to notice? Is she a bad mother? Such questions are left to the reader to parse; Grant does not presume to tell us what to think of her characters.
In We Had It So Good, Grant has produced a story of unusual poignancy and depth, and one which treats its all-too-human inhabitants with gentle empathy. She knits together a grief-stricken war photographer, a formerly deaf magician and their scientist and psychologist parents into a realistic family while sketching, separately but with comparable detail, a marriage of unguessable trajectory. It is true and moving and a remarkable achievement.
Previously reviewed on coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones