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When I Lived in Modern Times
By Linda Grant

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When I Lived in Modern Times
By Linda Grant
Thorndike Press - Large Print, (2001)
ISBN: 0-7862-3396-6
Genre: Fiction

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - December 9, 2001

Evelyn Sert grew up in England, in an ethnically mixed area of London. Her mother conceived Evelyn after a short fling with the American, Arthur Bergson who returned to America, never knowing he had fathered a child. An unwed mother, Evelyn's mother made ends meet by running a hairdressing shop and serving as the mistress to a married, and wealthy, man. This gentleman, who Evelyn called Uncle Joe, was an intellectual Zionist who educated her with an idealistic view of Zionism. When Evelyn's mother died, shortly after the end of World War II, Uncle Joe encouraged Evelyn to make Aliyah to Palestine. There she could start a new life, and help the soon to be founded country, Israel, grow. Having nothing much else to do Evelyn agrees to his suggestion. However, to enter Palestine, Evelyn has to sneak in, disguised as a Christian pilgrim - a necessary subterfuge because she could not obtain an entry visa from the British. The British, even after the end of World War II, strictly limited the number of Jews that could enter Palestine.

When I Lived in Modern Times was written by Linda Grant, and it is the book for which she won the British Orange Prize for 2000. Although this story follows Evelyn throughout her life, the major portion of the book focuses on Evelyn's adventures in Palestine. Consequently, although the descriptions of Evelyn's early life are interesting, the story does not really begin until 1946, when she enters Palestine. With no skills, and no direction, she joins a socialist Kibbutz, where sexual impropriety is the norm. Evelyn does not fit in with the hard-working kibbutzniks and soon runs away to Tel Aviv. There she unwittingly becomes involved with a young man who is more involved in the underground movement to establish a Jewish state than she cares to admit to herself. In Tel Aviv, Evelyn gets a job in a beauty parlor. To please her customers, who are mostly British, she dyes her hair blond, changes her name to Priscilla Jones, and once again pretends that she is a Christian.

There are two ways of looking at Evelyn. On the one hand you can view her as an immoral, self-absorbed, devious woman who will do just about anything to lead a comfortable life. On the other hand, you can view her as a strong woman who has the strength to ignore convention, and do what she feels she needs to do in order to survive. Either way, Evelyn is an intriguing character. In large part, her life has been shaped by her upbringing, and perhaps because of this, she allows a series of men to shape her destiny for her.

When I Lived in Modern Times is an intriguing novel, if for no other reason than because of its setting. The books is set in Palestine at a critical juncture. This juncture finds Jewish nationalism rising to the boil as the survivors of the Holocaust, who need a refuge, are being forcefully prevented from entering the Jewish homeland by the British. Furthermore, the Palestinians are being spurred to violence by outside forces, and the British are coming to the conclusion that it is best if they pull out of Palestine. In short, Evelyn has entered a dangerous maze that she is ill prepared to navigate. Along the way, she meets a host of eccentric people, each with their own story. These stories infuse the story with a sense of realism, and help the reader to get a glimpse of what life was like in some areas of Israel, in the late 1940's.

This is an extremely well written, and compelling novel, which I could not put down. Yet I have to admit that I don't like Evelyn. In part because her story highlights the fact that not all of the early immigrants to Israel were strong-willed people. While many of those coming to Israel in the early years, came with the certain knowledge that Israel was their homeland, and that they would do anything it took to reclaim it. There were also those that came out of expedience or avarice, or simply because they had nowhere else to go and somewhere was better than nowhere. On her part, Evelyn came, more or less, on a whim with little emotional or religious attachment to the land. Furthermore, she travels all the way to Israel, and what does she see - Haifa, a single kibbutz, and Tel Aviv. She never even bothers to make the short trip to see Jerusalem!

The fact that Evelyn is not perfect is one of the things that makes her such a believable character. So, despite the fact that I did not like Evelyn, on a personal level, I was fascinated by her story and I feel that most readers will also be amazed by her audacity and hidden strengths. Most will also be transfixed by the struggles that are going on around Evelyn. Although this is a forceful and captivating book, it is not suitable for all readers, as it contains material of a mature nature.

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