Kiwiflora's Reviews > The Cast Iron Shore

The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant
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Aug 19, 2011

it was ok
Read in August, 2011

Linda Grant has become a bit of favourite in our book club lately, starting with 'The Clothes on Their Backs' which was short listed for the Man Booker in 2008, and the non-fiction 'The Thoughtful Dresser'. These two books both reveal the author's very deep love and appreciation of clothes as more than just garments. She sees what you wear as crucial to self-identity, self-esteem, inner peace and harmony. Clothes are not just what we wear, but what we are.

So what does all this have to do with this particular novel, Linda Grant's first one, first published in 1996, and re-published last year? Although the story is not really about what we wear or what we look like, it is very much a central theme to the whole story and the raison d'etre of its main character, Sybil Ross and a number of other characters in the story.

The story begins in Liverpool, in 1938. Sybil is a teenager, living with her Serbian Jewish furrier father with his dark East European features, and her very stylish and beautiful mother, blond and blue eyed from Holland. Sybil has taken after her father in her looks and her personality although adores her mother with her gorgeousness and has considerable of appreciation of beautiful clothing and furs even as a 14 year old. Furs are a recurring symbol through the whole story and central to the essence of Sybil in her life.

The war changes everything. Liverpool is blitzed to bits, and on one the worst night of the blitz Sybil learns something about her parents that changes her view of the world and how she perceives her place in it. From then on she drifts, and that is really what the rest of the book is about - Sybil's drifting: through life, men, jobs, belief systems. And I don't think she ever really finds her true self either. Interestingly enough, after spending her life looking for whatever she is looking for, she ends up exactly where she started.

As soon as the war is over, just 21, she flees Liverpool plus all the things her parents stand for, and sails to New York, with her furs of course (the one thing she can't let go), in search of Stan, her Royal Navy boyfriend also from Liverpool. Stan has his own identity problems but he is a very snappy dresser - a spiv. She finds Stan and being both pretty and stylish she finds a job in a top department store. Big changes are afoot in the post-war world and Sybil finds herself drawn to the black community, persecuted and downtrodden in America much like the Jews had always been in Europe. Communism is on the rise and is seen as the vehicle of change for the black population. Sybil is soon immersed into the local red circle, despite her very bourgeois background, after falling for Julius, a charismatic black man. Naturally she has to give up her comfort blanket - her furs - and working in the store - the ultimate symbol of consumerism and capitalism and live like the other comrades. In other words owning nothing, completely divorced from anything remotely bourgeois, and unable to do anything that doesn't have the express approval of the committee.

Against her inner most judgement she goes with Julius to a grotty little working class town in the middle of the mid-West, Michigan or Minnesota - read middle of nowhere, works in a potato chip factory. Julius is 'chosen' for further training and education in Moscow, leaving Sybil alone and stranded. All this is happening during McCarthyism and the manic anti-communism witch hunts and persecutions that were going on in the 1950s. With Julius gone Sybil basically has to live an underground sort of existence for quite some time and eventually makes her way to the west coast, which had always been her goal. She has to make a few difficult decisions, but even then her continuing indecision about her life is infuriating to the reader. This endless drifting... More choices are made and after quite a lot more drifting Sybil finds herself living in England again having come full circle back to her bourgeois roots.

Satisfying read? Not really. Plot all over the place; not sure if the discovery on blitz night is really catastrophic enough to turn one communist; although can see how New York would be considerably more exciting than Liverpool in 1945; still don't really understand why she stayed in that horrible little town in the middle of nowhere with Julius who did not treat her at all well; can sort of see why she had to give up all her beautiful furs, but then why keep only one? All a bit messy and wishy washy for my liking! But having read two of her subsequent books, I love the way the author's love affair with how and why we dress was so important to her way back in her first book. Her books have definitely got better over time.
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