15 JUNE 2002, Page 36

The mystery of the face cream

Katie Grant

STILL HERE by Linda Grant Little, Brown, £16.99, pp, 373, ISBN 0316869958 Still Here is an extremely busy book. One of the attractions as well as one of the flaws of Linda Grant the novelist rather than Linda Grant the feature-writer is that she can leave nothing unresearched, nothing unexplained. As a fount of detailed geographical and architectural knowledge about Liverpool and Judaism past and present, the bombing of Dresden, soldiering Israeli style, modern middle age, cleansing cream and make-up, Still Here matches many encyclopaedias. As the story of Alix Rebick, a 49-year-old, feisty Jewess, and Joseph Shields, a Jewish-American architect emotionally stunted by his experiences of battle, however, the painstaking reconstruction of the many layers of history that have shaped them is sometimes a little heavy. Of course their history is part of the narrative — an important part — but when you get to the end of the book, in some respects you feel as if the whole thing was a giant prologue and the real story has yet to begin. The truly brave next step would be to write a sequel.

Alix and Joseph take it in turns to disclose how they come to be in post-millennium, decaying Liverpool. Alix has been summoned from her cottage in the Perigord to her mother's deathbed. Her brother Sam, married to Melanie, is a successful lawyer able to pull strings in the underworld. They meet Joseph, a Yom Kippur veteran, whose wife Erica has left him and whose son Michael is a problem. Everybody has a father and a mother whose histories are also interwoven and the Rebicks have one final mystery to solve about the face cream that has made them rich. Joseph, meanwhile, is building a futuristic hotel, an attempt to expunge bad memories but also a symbol of faith in Liverpool's future.

There are many permutations of relationship amongst the characters and Linda Grant dissects every one with the skills of microsurgery. The result is a tableau of huge detail, every reference given context. The dramatic tension is provided by the fluctuating lust of Alix and Joseph, both products of the 1960s sexual revolution that has not turned out entirely satisfactorily for either. Against a backdrop of discovering and revealing their respective pasts, will these two get it together or not?

Linda Grant writes with an authority and confidence that defy you not to take an interest in the many things she has to say. She also has a knack of telling you things you are glad to know even if these occasionally seem superfluous to the story. However, Grant's real talent is that she can guide you through a city, somebody's history and character or a highly emotional scene — the clearing out of Alix's childhood home, for example, or the farcical start to the Yom Kippur war — with the same meticulous care her heroine uses to paint her face. Still Here is that ultimate luxury, a book that allows the reader to relax whilst the author does the work.