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 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.
I had heard a lot of good things about this novel, but, for me, it fell short of the praise. The main problem was that I never got very interested in any of the characters. Vivien plays out the metaphor implied by the title, her clothing changes leading her through a series of personality changes, from the studious, obedient immigrant daughter to a teenage beauty having an affair with an older neighbor, from the wife of an upper class minister's son to the girlfriend of a lower class punk/goth Irish gypsy's son, etc. I guess we were supposed to read this as her coming of age, but it just came off to me as insincere. I wasn't particularly charmed by or intrigued with Sandor either. The minor characters--Vivien's parents, her boyfriend Claude, Sandor's fiancée Eunice--were actually much more interesting, but because the novel is told from Vivien's perspective, we never really learn much about them.
The writing is good enough that I'm willing to read other books by Grant, but I won't be going out of my way to find them.
Vivien, our protagonist, is a young sheltered woman who has lived her youth in the care of her meek & cloistered parents who are Hungarian refugees of their war torn homeland. To her knowledge there are just the three of them.
Eventually she realizes that she has an uncle. Her father's estranged brother who also came to the new country to make his fortune. And make it he did until he was found out by the housing authorities and arrested for his slumlord activities. By the time that Vivien, unknowingly to her parents, makes his acquaintance he has spent many years in prison. She is fascinated by the fact that here is a relative of hers and she wants to get to know him but they each keep secret from the other that they know who the other is. He wants to write his memoirs and needs a typist. She goes to work for him typing up the notes that he speaks into a tape recorder.
Her parents of course flip out when they find out and so it goes.
I know from the title & from reading other reviews that our Vivien invents & reinvents herself through the clothes & outfits that she puts together & wears. But this ploy didn't work for me. I have read Grant before & loved what I read. This time I just liked it. I liked the premise of the story but thought that it took an awfully long time to be told, longer than my interest actually held.
So when, in her early twenties, Vivien comes across Uncle Sándor again, she befriends him and starts to learn about her own history. The attraction for her is clear. I enjoyed listening to someone who was voluble, who didn't excrete small constipated pieces of information, under great pressure. Out it came, there was no stopping him, he was a man who loved to talk. But Sándor differs from her parents in another important way. They have chosen to survive by melting into the background. Sándor, on the other hand, has survived by being a hustler. He is defiantly proud of this - he has an appetite for life, and wants to live it to the full. But he also believes that it is, in the end, the only way to survive.
I didn't take the supplies, I took other people's supplies and I sold them and split the profits with them, so there was no coupon with my name on it, and this is why, at the end of the war, my mother still had an apartment. And now do you understand why your ideas about what is decent, and respect, and equality are for babies? A boy like that one downstairs, strong and stupid, is the kind who is most like the animal who suddenly lies down in the shafts of the cart and dies, for no reason, because his strength is exhausted. His strength is all he has. I'm not that type, and I hope you are not either.
I really like Linda Grant's writing, and have read all her novels. This one contains some of her best writing - I don't believe anyone could read the first chapter or two and then put the book back on the shelf. The subject seems a little less coherent than her other books, perhaps because Vivien is struggling for space with Sándor: the book is about her growing up as much as it is his life story, but he's such a bold personality that he sometimes takes over. And while Vivien's relationship with her mother is poignantly drawn, her father is little more than a cipher. There's also an element of unlikely contrivance in the story (Vivien and Sándor meet by chance - each recognises the other but both pretend not to). But there is still an enormous amount to like and enjoy in this novel, and I would highly recommend it.
Vivien Kovacs is the daughter of her reclusive, refugee parents, who emigrated from Hungary to London during World War II. Vivien's parents shielded her from life's experiences, including a complete avoidance of Vivien's uncle Sandor, who also lived in England after the war. Once Vivien graduated from college, she became more and more curious about her mysterious uncle, who had served time in prison for being a "slum lord." She finally got an opportunity to meet him and forged a relationship with her uncle, despite her father's wishes.
I can't say Vivien was the most likable character, but she was very believable. She was flawed and human, like her uncle. I was most intrigued, though, by Vivien's mother, Berta. She was a minor character in the book, but Grant left enough of a breadcrumb trail to make you wonder more about her. I think there was more there than met the eye.
The Clothes on Their Backs is a superb telling of the World War II refugee experience and the circumstances of family secrets. Most skeletons find their way out of the closet, and Vivien's family was no exception. Grant had me at Word One, and I devoured this novel, eager to learn more about Vivien and her family. I was slightly dissatisfied with the ending, especially the death of Uncle Sandor, but this is a small quibble. All in all, The Clothes on Their Backs was a readable and fascinating story about family relationships.
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.
The writing is lovely, spare yet with a style that touches on the emotions and turmoil of this woman at different life stages. And she does find herself in the end through some very interesting moves that force her parents to confront what they hid for so long.
The narrator of this story is Vivien Kovacs, the only child of two refugees who left Hungary when the tide of anti-Semitism began to rise and make itself obvious. Ervin and Berta (her parents) as described by Vivien, were "mice-people", who laid low in an apartment, never caused any trouble, didn't get involved in anything outside the apartment which other than Ervin's work, seemed to be their entire world. Vivien knows nothing about her parents' past: has no clue about grandparents, or much about her parents' life before coming to London. What she does know is that her father has a brother, one Sandor Kovacs, who Vivien sees first at a young age. That meeting did not last long, since Ervin throws him out of the house. It turns out that Sandor is the proverbial black sheep of the family, and for Vivien's sake, Ervin and Berta never discussed him. However, television news reports painted him as a heinous criminal, and so Vivien knows something's up. It is only years later that she learns about the unspoken past, but the price of learning comes at a cost. I absolutely will not say more about the plot, because it will spoil it for anyone who decides to read this book, and because it needs to be unfolded in bits and pieces to really understand the story. There are several themes explored in this book, especially the notion that morality is relative, depending on perspective. Also, there is the question of what our clothes tell others, but also what our clothes say about us to ourselves. The idea of the importance of the past in our present is also explored.
As I said, I liked it and would definitely recommend it. The author's writing is very good, the characters are well drawn, and the story is good enough to keep you turning pages (in my case, pretty much through the night).
And what do you reckon to the husband getting snuffed out in such a ridiculous way on the honeymoon? All suspension of belief withered away.
I found it slow going, though it was very thought provoking and I no doubt would have enjoyed it more had I read it straight through.
Vivien's parents escaped from Hungary to England prior to WWII. They lived their lives there solely within the confines of their apartment complex and place of work. The daughter comes to question whether they lived at all.
As an adult, Vivien becomes acquainted with her father's older brother, whose experience of the War, and of immigration, and of life are the exact opposite of those of her parents.
The book is her struggle to integrate the both and create a life for herself. A coming-of-age story that far outlasted adolescence.
However, Ervin's daughter finds Sandor to seek out her family history. Book is about an immigrant's life and explains Jewish Hungarian life well.
Sandor, a somewhat sleazy man whom her father vehemently casts aside, hires Vivien to write his life story. And, through the unfolding of the tale, Vivien realizes the complications of relationships and the ties that bind.
Set in the 1970's, when once again fascism raised its ugly snake head in London, Vivien is aware of the fear and terror her family previously experienced and the terrible memories that this band of thugs can elicit.
I give this book a 3.5 star rating. It held my interest, but it was a slow go at various points.