When I Lived in Modern Times

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

When I Lived in Modern Times is an intriguing novel which tells of the coming of age of Evelyn Sert, a young Jewish woman from postwar London who has an uncertain ancestry and an unclear grasp of self. After her mother’s death, Evelyn goes to Tel Aviv in an attempt to define and solidify her identity. She first joins a kibbutz, but finds the extremely hard physical labor and the total practicality of the kibbutz philosophy not to her liking. After leaving the kibbutz, she moves among very different levels of society, British officers’ wives and Israeli rebels, fitting in everywhere and nowhere. When she is practicing her mother’s profession of hair stylist, she adopts a British persona, but when she is on her own she is Evelyn Sert, a young Zionist. She falls in love with a terrorist and allows herself to be used as a spy by the underground movement, and as her two selves get farther and farther apart she moves deeper into danger in the unstable society she is exploring. Evelyn is a likeable and believable heroine, and the if outcome seems artificial, the reader is nevertheless both pleased and informed by this novel.

The most delightful element of this book is the vivid and subtle description of the social groups, with their expectations and prejudices. Evelyn’s combination of naivete and openness make her a stimulus for cultural conflicts. The small ways cultures rub against each other are so vividly represented that it is hard to remember that this is fiction, and historical fiction at that. The novel is interesting more than exciting—despite her independence, the main character seems to have history happen to her rather than actively making it. But the intersecting worlds described in this novel make it well worth the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction which it has been awarded.