The Clothes on Their Backs Paperback – Apr 2 2009
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** 'A beautifully written and truly moving book about the experience of growing up in Britain as a second generation immigrant―EXPRESS
** 'This is a vivid, enjoyable and consistently unexpected novel―THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
** 'It's a sublimely atmospheric and moving novel―LONDON PAPER
** 'If you read only one novel this year, make sure it is The Clothes on Their Backs―SUNDAY EXPRESS
About the Author
Linda Grant is a novelist and journalist. She won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 and the Lettre Ulysses Prize for Literary Reportage in 2006. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Vogue.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In 1977 Vivien, aged 24 and out of a job, accidentally sits next to him on a park bench: she recognizes him, but does not tell him who she is, though we are told fairly early on that he did realize who she was. Both of them will for a long time keep up the pretence that she is someone called Miranda. The old man is looking for someone to tape-record and then write up the story of his life, and Vivien takes on the job. In the course of it she learns about the past of which her parents had never spoken - it covers the years from 1916 to the Hungarian uprising of 1956. And she also learns what events had turned her father into such an anxious and timid creature, while Sándor, who had had an infinitely worse time in Hungary during the war, had learnt from them that only the tough, ruthless and selfish survive. But Vivien gradually begins to realize that even a `monster' has a human side. The first climax comes about two thirds through the book in which, well described as it is, her collusion is to me frankly unbelievable. The second climax, near the end and involving the novel's secondary plot of Vivien's relationship with one of her uncle's tenants, also strikes me as somewhat forced.
The story is set against the time when racist thugs of the National Front were very active and intimidating in certain London neighbourhoods, and that of course was a frightening reminder to the generation of refugees.
One theme of the book is that Vivien, partly because she had been kept in such ignorance of her roots, does not really know who she is. As a young woman and wanting to escape from the stifling atmosphere of her home, she goes through various styles of living, each of which involves its own way of dressing up. The clothes of all the characters are described in detail throughout the book, and are symbolic of their owners' lives. `The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in' is Vivien's rather odd generalization near the end - true perhaps of the clothes Vivien is given, less so surely of those she has chosen.
Some things in this book ring very true; others less so; but it is a good read; and when you have finished the book, you will want to read the first chapter, set in 2006, again.
The main character, Vivien, embarks on a search for her family history by talking with her father's estranged brother, Sandor, once convicted of being a slum lord. Sandor is a complex character - a slum lord, a pimp, a survivor of slave labor camps during WWII, an escapee from communist Hungary. He is by turns "the face of evil" & the soul of human kindness. I loved all the complex dualities captured in his character.
Equally interesting is the underlying story of London in the '70's - punk music & the rise of the National Front. It's interesting to think about how frightening the skinhead movement must have been to those who had survived the first go-round with Fascism.
This book is well written & literary without being overly conscious of its craft. The story is well-told, the characters fully realized and multidimensional. & the clothes - the joys to be had in costuming & re-costuming & all of the ways that clothes express who we are or who we wish we could be.
"The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in. ... A million imperfections mar us. ... So the most you can do is put on a new dress, a different tie."
Most of Vivian's story is told through flashbacks and stories-within-stories. This nesting of narratives, while structurally impressive, imposes a significant distance between the reader and the emotional core of the story. This backward-looking construct has a muting effect on the action, as if everything happens under cover of a deep fog.
This character-driven novel lacks a protagonist strong enough to sustain the momentum. On the one hand, Vivian is a mousy introvert, but, on the other hand, she develops a love for stylish clothes and marries a "self-confident" and "rather shallow" man who resembles a "young English lord in a white open-neck shirt." These inconsistencies never coalesce into a coherent identity. Nevertheless, Grant's undeniable skill as a writer results in a mildly enjoyable book, one that would've been terrible in less masterful hands.
Vivien Kovacs, a lost unfulfilled soul grown up in London as a child of Jewish immigrants, is sorely in need of an identity which her timid parents all too eager to forget their past, is unwilling to help her find. At the opposite end is family black sheep Sandor, an estranged uncle with a criminal past whom Vivien's parents are determined to keep out of her life. He too, having survived the persecution in Hungary in the 50s before arriving in England as an impoverished immigrant, needs to connect with the only family he has who refuses to acknowledge him. Is it any surprise that Vivien and Sandor become magnets drawn irresistably to one another ?
Despite having the story straddle the 50s, the 70s and the present in a rather confusing manner, without any memorable events to mark each period, there is an unintended flatness to the plot that makes reading the book rather dull. For one thing, the fireworks we are entitled to expect of the climactic birthday scene flops like a damp squib. For another, the author's decision to have the two protagonists know (yes, not guess) each other's identity from the start not only takes the fun out of it for the reader but also lends a rather predictable air to the whole affair.
The story is saved by the character of Sandor, who in choosing pragmatism in his bid to survive in London is as courageous as he is deceitful and immoral. What a terrific round character as compared to Vivien or his cowardly brother and sister-in-law.
A pleasant enough read though definitely not Booker material.