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The Cast Iron Shore
Linda Grant

The Cast Iron Shore
Linda Grant
London 1996
0330 33790 4

London 1997

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Linda Grant’s ambitious first novel attempts to portray the political and social ambiguities and uncertainties of the 20th century through the life of one woman. Sybil Ross is half-Jewish, half-German, brought up in the Liverpool of the Thirties and Forties by her middle-European furrier father and glamorous mother. Dislocated by this dual inheritance, Sybil’s life takes place on the margins of history. Never quite belonging, she follows Stan, her merchant sailor, bisexual lover to New York, where both of them are as foreign as the city. She works as a vendeuse in a smart department store, drawing on the expertise instilled in her by her label obsessed mother – you are what you wear – while he peddles baking skills, dope and sex. In Harlem she dances to Duke Ellington, and into the arms of Julius, black activist and autodidact, and the Communist Party of America.

Sybil’s father, burdened by the weight of his Jewish history tells her she is born an animal, and that her life’s work is to become human. This sense of emptiness leads her to choose the hard path of Julius, to imbue herself with meaning. But Sybil’s life has no narrative push. Passive, it is only her spur of the moment sexual desire for Julius that leads her away from Stan and towards ideas of justice. Bitterly she submits to the dictats of the party and her abandonment by Julius as he leaves to go to Moscow, to continue his revolutionary education. Her voyage of discovery finds her washed from the East Coast, through factories and small towns of the deep mid-West, to pitch up finally on the Northern West coast in Alaska, two decades later. It is here that both her lovers turn up, Julius a humiliated wreck after his experience in Moscow, Stan still peddling sex and baking.

Yet even at this point there are still a couple of decades to go. And the great emotional pay-off we are waiting for never happens. Any novel with a brief to catalogue history through the life of one person courts all sorts of narrative dangers, didacticism , sublimation of character to historical narrative, imperatives that can lead to an emptiness at the heart of a book, negating even the most worthy of ideas or beautifully crafted prose. On the whole The Cast Iron Shore avoids these pitfalls. Sybil’s constant awareness of her marginality evokes instead the outsider that we all secretly experience ourselves to be. By evading the trap of assigning a narrative cohesion to our pasts, we are cut off from the comfort of a notional destiny. So the expected emotional payoff loses its importance as the central truth of the novel is finally revealed. Or rather not revealed: it was always there staring us in the face. We cannot write our histories in advance or in retrospect, but must, in that most post-modern of senses, submit to the vacillations of character and circumstance and surrender that dearest and most dishonest of illusions – the happy ending.

Reviewed by Sara Rance


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