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The Clothes on Their Backs [Paperback]

Linda Grant

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Book Description

April 2 2009
In a red brick mansion block off the Marylebone Road, Vivien, a sensitive, bookish girl grows up sealed off from both past and present by her timid refugee parents. Then one morning a glamorous uncle appears, dressed in a mohair suit, with a diamond watch on his wrist and a girl in a leopard-skin hat on his arm. Why is Uncle Sándor so violently unwelcome in her parents' home?

This is a novel about survival - both banal and heroic - and a young woman who discovers the complications, even betrayals, that inevitably accompany the fierce desire to live.

Set against the backdrop of a London from the 1950s to the present day, The Clothes on Their Backs is a wise and tender novel about the clothes we choose to wear, the personalities we dress ourselves in, and about how they define us all.


Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown (April 2 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844085422
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844085422
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 259 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #290,523 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

** 'If you read only one novel this year, make sure it is The Clothes on Their Backs SUNDAY EXPRESS ** 'A beautifully written and truly moving book about the experience of growing up in Britain as a second generation immigrant EXPRESS ** 'It's a sublimely atmospheric and moving novel LONDON PAPER ** 'This is a vivid, enjoyable and consistently unexpected novel THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

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)
Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  15 reviews
41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Even 'monsters' have a human side June 4 2008
By Ralph Blumenau - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but not compelling Oct. 19 2008
By M. Feldman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This novel, which made it to the Man Booker short list, is uneven and not nearly as good as other novels on the list, like Barry's "The Secret Scripture and Adiga's "The White Tiger" (which won the prize). Grant is skillful at characterization, and almost all of the characters in "The Clothes on Their Back" are interesting, particularly Sandor, the slumlord uncle who escapes the Holocaust and then communist Hungary but can't escape his own nature. But the plot that draws the disparate characters together is thin, particularly the narrator Vivian's involvement with an alienated young punk who has a room in her uncle's apartment house. The narrator keeps pointing out that the two of them are only together for the sex, as if repeatedly trying to explain why these two would spend time together at all. Some scenes seem like a stretch, like the birthday party Sandor throws for Vivian; it's a device to accomodate the family confrontation, but it's not very convincing. Read "The Clothes on Their Backs" and see what you think; it's an interesting novel, if not a great one.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clothes reveal & conceal ... May 19 2009
By Caitlin Martin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I really loved this book with its sharp, incisive character studies & underlying exploration of how a wardrobe can reveal & conceal.

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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars This character-driven novel lacks a strong protagonist June 18 2009
By G. Dawson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In this coming-of-age novel, young Vivian Kovacs, a Hungarian immigrant living with her parents in London in the 1970's, struggles to escape her sheltered existence. Believing the outside world to be unsafe, Vivian's parents "chose to be mice-people," planning their lives around the TV schedule and leaving their flat only when absolutely required. Vivian rejects her parents' fear, engages with the world, and invents a colorful identity for herself through the eclectic clothes she wears. As if the symbolism isn't already apparent, Vivian explains:

"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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dull and duller. Feb. 26 2012
By Anna Keaney - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Throughout THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS, I felt that the author thought she was saying Important Things. What I actually experienced the author saying was a long, dull book about dull people doing dull things. Vivien, the main character, supposedly undergoes tragedy that affects her profoundly. In reality she appears much the same after the incident as before. Her uncle Sandor supposedly undergoes a big tragedy, yet again, appears much the same in all instances and at all ages. When you recount the events that occur in the book they sound like they should be interesting. Yet in the actual writing of them it is as if they are shrouded in cotton batting: you can't see them or feel them beyond soft, dull lumps. The references to clothing are Important only in their relation to how the story works: it's all surface and you can't see anything of interest underneath.
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