‘Like a child in a fairy tale’, 14-year old Mina Mendel walks into a Latvian forest one day in 1913. With her basket and shawl, she looks like Little Red Riding Hood, but the wolves she meets – Bolsheviks, ‘agents of the coming revolution’ – are anything but mythical.
Linda Grant begins her sweeping, ambitious ninth novel The Story of the Forest with this accidental encounter. From Latvia to Liverpool – and Soho to World’s End – she tells the story of one Jewish family in the 20th century as they live through plots to overthrow the tsar, the trenches of of the Great War, the racism of Liverpudlian suburbs and the horrors of the second world war
It is a novel of chances: of lives changed by the ring of a phone, a meeting in a street, or the march of global history. Mina eventually marries a man her brother Jossel meets on the battlefield; he is only fighting in the war because he himself married a woman, Lia, he met on the boat over from Liverpool and could no longer afford to go all the way to America. Mina’s daughter Paula is prepared for ‘disassociation and alienation’ – to bury her heritage under an English accent learnt from the wireless, and a change of surname. (‘What’s a name that doesn’t get us into trouble?’) After a chance meeting in a pub, she dates a scoundrel of a BBC announcer and discovers his ‘elocution-class’ voice is just a thin veneer of politeness.
Grant tells the story – in part a fictionalised version of her own family history, with its emigrations, changed names and ‘few written records’ – in the condensed, elliptical style of a fable.