The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant

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The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Kerry King
Reviewed by Kerry King
Summary: This is a story of survival. The scene is set in 1970s London and the premise is a sage and warm one about the clothes we wear and what they say about us and ultimately how they define us but also how we define ourselves.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Virago
ISBN: 978-1844085422

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Vivien Kovacs is born in England to Eastern European parents; small, timid, grateful people who think it better just to blend in and keep yourself to yourself. Vivien thinks her parents are mice-people and it is unbearable to her that they should hope for and want mouse-hood for her too. So when Vivien's Uncle Sàndor knocks on the door to the Kovacs' tiny London flat and elicits from her father a stream of invective, the like of which the young Vivien has never before heard and especially not from her closeted, repressed father and in his native Hungarian, a language she has never heard him speak, Vivien's curiosity is naturally piqued. Who is this elaborately dressed stranger with his mohair suit and diamond watch and who is the girl in the leopard-skin hat who dangles from his arm like a brightly coloured jewel? Why is this man, her father's flesh and blood, so ferociously unwelcome? Vivien wants to know and her parents are resolutely not telling.

As Vivien grows older she is unable to get her Uncle Sàndor out of her mind. So unlike her tightly-wrapped parents, Vivien has an inquisitive mind; questioning, curious and receptive. The years that pass after that fateful day come close to torment for Vivien who realises that there is so much more in the world than the small fragment she has been thus far allowed to view.

For the rest of my childhood, my parents and I rolled slowly and quietly like three torpid marbles across the lino floor…

In her isolation she briefly allows herself to be befriended by one of the tenants, Mrs Prescott, an elderly lady whose wardrobes seem without end, stuffed with the most beautiful silks, satins, velvets, broiderie anglaise, lace and feathers in peach, apricot, grape and plum-coloured shades: a dazzling momentary rain of richness. Then, having exhausted all the avenues Mrs. Prescott's clothes might offer, Vivien acquires a taste for the more exotic outfits of much earlier eras and begins to frequent the second-hand and vintage clothing stores nearby as her love affair with clothing flourishes and this is key in understanding the 'deep waters' of Vivien's character.

The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in … There are deep flaws we are not at liberty to do anything about… so the most you can do is put on a new dress, a different tie. We are forever turning into someone else, and should never forget that someone else is always looking.

A handful of years pass – not many – and Vivien still has a sense that something is missing from her life. She decides on a whim to locate her Uncle Sàndor and find out if there is any merit in the small snippets that she has managed to discover about him. Her fancy is that she should be the one to reunite these feuding brothers though she does not appear to realise it at the time. It does not take her long to locate Uncle Sàndor and Vivien is immediately both hypnotised and repelled by him, his unsubtlety and bullishness so alien to anything she has ever known. Together they embark on the strange journey of discovery of one another and the telling of the tale of Sàndor's life is set in motion.

The Clothes On Their Backs is a family history of complex characters and difficult choices, intricately told by the memories and recollections of a single character. Grant introduces you to Vivien so gently that you barely notice she is there and I liked that idea so much: that the central character could be so ghostly and almost absent that you become drawn deeper in to the story in search of her. Certainly The Clothes On Their Backs captured my imagination and evoked within me clear memories of my own, as my mind wandered back down the years to the 1970s, in which the story is set; these were the days of my childhood and I recall all too well the mindless intolerance of a generation towards anyone not set exactly in their mould.

I have since read dozens of reviews of this book and many say that Grant was not deserving of a Man Booker nomination; that this latest novel will disappoint, that it lies within the shadow of her other, and in most opinions much better, work. I don't agree that she was undeserving of her Prize nomination – I personally found The Clothes On Their Backs to be colourful, evocative and atmospheric and far more thought-provoking than some of the Prize nominees and as I have not read any other of Grant's work I imagine I have a lot to look forward to!

The shame of it is that when an author is nominated for a Prize – regardless of whose Prize it is – the reader is often unable to manage their own expectations. The fact that The Clothes On Their Backs was short-listed is basically irrelevant as it stands ably alone as a fine piece of literature written by a person with an obvious talent for their day job. I always try, when reading a novel for the first time, to seek and read the favourable reviews as it takes no skill whatsoever to rubbish an author's work and afterwards I prefer to make my own judgments based on the merits of the tale. In this case, I am glad I paid no attention to the people who thought Grant had not tried hard enough because for my money, she didn't have to try at all.

Now, if Prize Nominees and Winners are your thing, then we have lots more for you to digest in terms of your reading list. Why not peruse the winners in each category of the Costa Book Awards 2008? You may also like to check out the notable entrants on The Richard and Judy Shortlist 2009 although we've not been quite so convinced by this year's list.

Lastly, but by no means least we at Bookbag would very much like to thank the ladies and gentlemen at Virago for sending this copy to Bookbag for review.

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