The first business of any fairy tale, according to the Soviet folklorist Vladimir Propp, is to “absent” its hero from the comforts of home. That could mean sending them off to work, to war or – as Linda Grant has it at the start of her ninth novel – into the forest to pick mushrooms. Except that, as “a curly-haired Jewish girl” in Latvia in 1913, Mina Mendel has no safe or stable home to begin with. Her world is already unheimlich.
In the spirit of this revisionism the Big Bad Wolf of Grant’s forest turns out to be a group of carousing but kindly Bolsheviks. These men’s initial appeal for the fourteen-year-old Mina is somatic: she experiences “the hot exhilaration, the damp armpits of her dress, the blood rushing through her limbs” as she dances with them. Before long she has “absorbed the difference between labour and capital, between the proletariat, the bourgeoisie”, and become something of a revolutionary herself. Maybe you don’t have “to live the way your mother lived and her mother before her and so on until back into the dawn of history”, she wonders.
The twentieth century leaves her wondering. For when rumours start to circulate about her exploits in the forest, and her older brother Jossel senses a storm of antisemitism brewing, he sees a quick fix to both in the family’s “wholesale transport to America”. “Jews dwell in time, not space”, says Jossel, in the face of his father’s resistance. “We have, and are, a story, not a plot of territory.” The deportation, imprisonment and murder of the Mendels who remain in Latvia will later cast a shadow on these words.
For now we stick with Mina and Jossel, who arrive in Liverpool in the belief that New York is just ahead. Once again the twentieth century has other ideas, this time in the form of the Great War and its suspension of Atlantic travel. Forced to put down roots in Liverpool – including jobs and marriage – the siblings quickly abandon the whole notion of America, “screwed up like a piece of paper and … discarded for good”.
The “immigrant success story” that follows is double-edged for Mina. Its architect is her husband, Louis, whose chamois-leather business lifts the family out of the “teeming” tenements of Brownlow Hill and into a prosperity and security she could never have known in Latvia. Yet she misses her home country, and with each conformity to her new one – children, suburbia, the anglicization of her name – Mina feels further displaced from her teenage idyll in the forest.
That all these events happen to our central character results in an unfortunate narrative inertia: as Propp knew, stories are decision-driven, and Mina makes none. This is partly Grant’s point, of course – in the Venn diagram of victimhood, Jewish women of the early twentieth century were among the most powerless – but a good point well made does not faster make the pages turn. Grant’s best heroines have been more wilful: see Evelyn in When I Lived in Modern Times (2000), whose adventures in Mandatory Palestine in the 1940s stretch credulity and make for compelling reading.
Thankfully, Mina relinquishes the spotlight to her daughter Paula after about 100 pages. With her BBC presenter’s voice and Margaret Lockwood looks, Paula seems poised to achieve her mother’s dream of freedom when she moves to London and gets a job in the film industry, then in its 1940s heyday. But the lures of hearth and home are not so easily resisted. Perhaps her own daughter (who takes the spotlight later) will have a better chance.
Some of these stories, according to Linda Grant’s afterword, derive from her family, and one wonders whether they would have been more suited to a memoir. As it is, the novel sags under its fidelity to history and infidelity to good novelistic practice.
George Cochrane is a writer and editor based in London