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It takes some time before the main plot of the book really gets into its stride. The story is told by Vivien, the daughter of Ervin and Bertha Kovacs, Jews who had fled to London from the antisemitism in pre-war Hungary. They are timid people, desperate not to get into any further trouble, and they have been so traumatized by their past that they never talk about it. For example, Vivien has been told nothing about her grandparents, though she does know that Ervin has an elder brother, Sándor, who is the black sheep of the family and who arrived in England only after 1956. When Vivien was ten, she had once caught a glimpse of Sándor, who turned up at their front door, only to be driven away by his brother, who would not explain to Vivien why he hated his brother so and who forbade any mention of him in the house; but soon afterwards there were reports on television about his arrest, and then books and newspaper articles programmes appear about Sándor, who, for his crimes as a particularly notorious and vicious rack landlord, had been sent to prison for fourteen years.
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.