Published by Virago
The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant
In a red brick mansion block off theMarylebone Road, Vivien, a sensitive, bookish girl grows up sealed off from both past and present by her timid refugee parents.
One morning an 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 Sandor 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 aLondonfrom 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.
This novel made it to the Man Booker short list. I always had confidence in the Man Booker, as an approval for modern fiction, but this book although very good is not literature and only very good in parts. Books like ‘The White Tiger’ deservedly won the prize, but now I do not have as much faith in the awards as a benchmark as I had before.
All the characters are well developed and fairly interesting, particularly Sandor, the seemingly reformed slum landlord and Uncle of Vivien. Vivien is the child of a Hungarian Jewish refugee family and helps document Sandors life story and through this, finds out about her own roots. This of course means that the story is told in a lot of flashbacks and memories which tends to make the story lose some immediacy.
There are some very sharp observations on growing up in Londonin the seventies, with the rise of the national front, which mirrored the Fascism that the family had escaped from, and the advent of unruly punk rockers. There is also the thread that reflects in the title, of clothes being a reflection of what is going on in life. The heroine Vivien wants to find out about her family and their history and uses Sandor to fill in some of the details that her parents are still frightened to speak about regarding the move to Britain. The parents are ‘mouse people’ and only venture out into the world when absolutely necessary. Vivien rejects this style of life and I do love her ideas about clothes
“The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in’.
Certainly worth a read, this book is different, original, but can seem slow paced and pedantic at times.