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 adept at capturing 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).