The Clothes on Their Backs: A Novel
To be particularly honest, I am partial to any and all texts set in Britain, and The Clothes On Their Backs is set in London. So I was already loving the book before I started reading. My love only grew as I went on.
The story is of Vivien Kovacs, daughter of Jewish Hungarian immigrants. Vivien grew up in Benson Court, with parents who much preferred staying home than going out. Her quiet and sheltered childhood is spent reading and imagining, interrupted by a brief visit by her uncle Sándor Kovacs. Her parents slam the door in Sándor’s face—for he is a notorious slumlord, vilified in the media.
Sándor becomes an integral figure in the book. Niece and uncle meet in a park after Vivien has gone to university, married, become a widow, and moved back in with her parents. He hires her to help him write his memoirs. The two pretend to not know they are related, though each really knows the truth. Vivien digs for information about her past and her family, trying to come to an understanding of why her parents are the way they are. She is also looking for information about why she is the way she is.
The theme of clothing runs throughout the book in subtle ways. The most obvious connection is that Vivien’s family fled Hungary with just the clothes on their backs. The idea moves from there. As a teen and young adult, Vivien wears vintage clothing as a way to define herself: someone slightly alternative, bohemian yet educated. She briefly dates a young man who dresses in a roughed-up leather jacket, showing that he is not from the same class background as she is. Her most vivid memory of the first meeting with her uncle is clothing. Her uncle wore an “electric-blue mohair suit, black hand-stitched suede shoes... And the black girl on his arm, in a nylon leopardskin coat with matching pillbox hat, carrying a plastic crocodile handbag with a gilt clasp.” Much can be inferred from one’s clothing.
There are some moments that feel unresolved or unnecessary; Vivien’s abortion and her brief marriage to Alex don’t really seem to move the book forward. Other than that, the book reads quite well. Linda Grant writes artfully, and was deservedly on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize.
The book evokes feelings of melancholy and raises questions. In telling the history of Hungary before World War II, and the history of London during the post-war era, questions of immorality and goodness are raised. Vivien’s question of knowing how to live is also left up to the reader to answer for oneself.