Another time, another place. Well, perhaps not entirely another place. The Liberation of Celia Kahn by J. David Simons takes us back to the Gorbals of a little under a century ago, and to the Jewish community that thrived at the time, in an area that may still exist in name, but was changed out of all recognition by slum clearance and rehousing in the decades after World War II. Celia Kahn's Gorbals was a place of strong community ties, whether the community in question saw itself as Glaswegian, or Jewish, or Italian, or Irish. It was also in many ways a place apart from Glasgow itself, whose centre sat, and continues to sit, a mere stone's throw away on the opposite side of the River Clyde.
We first meet Celia Kahn as an impressionable Jewish girl on the brink of womanhood in Glasgow in 1915. The background of deep social division and unrest is set out nicely, and Celia quickly becomes involved in the rent strikes and the anti war feeling: and the seedy underworld elements whose attention is drawn to the family by her uncle's gambling and alcohol addictions. Meanwhile Celia's mother, who has already been interned once as a suspected German citizen, is afraid that every knock on the door means they have come for her again: despite her compulsive efforts to support the British war effort through her knitting.
Celia finds herself growing up quickly, and her horizons are broadened when she meets and becomes the companion of an older woman deeply rooted in Glasgow's socialist and feminist movements. The book is divided into three sections, and in the second and third we meet Celia again at the end of World War I in 1918, and in 1923. En route we find her growing in self assurance, but still searching for deeper fulfillment. Will she find it with Jonny Levy, a young Jewish doctor from Glasgow's west end who sees a future for himself, and Celia, in Palestine? Or is her life going to continue to revolve around her female friends and their pursuit of a better society in Glasgow?
This is J. David Simons's second novel and partly shares its background and setting with his first, "The Credit Draper": though it is not necessary to have read the earlier book to enjoy The Liberation of Celia Kahn.