The Clothes On Their Backs: A Novel

by Linda Grant

Paperback, 2008





Scribner (2008), Edition: Later Printing, 293 pages


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cariola
Vivien's parents don't like to talk about the past; she knows almost nothing about their life in the Hungarian village they fled during World War II or the family they left behind. And they won't even talk about Uncle Sandor, even though he, too, now lives in London. The black sheep of the family, Sandor spent time in prison for his crimes as a "slum king," but Vivien recalls him coming to the house when she was young, holding out chocolate as the door was slammed in his face. Now a university graduate and recently widowed, Vivien is determined to track down her uncle and learn the secrets of her family's past. She assumes the name Miranda and befriends Sandor as he sits writing on a park bench, and he hires her to help write his memoirs. In the meantime, Vivien undergoes an identity crisis of her own.

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.
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LibraryThing member wandering_star
Vivien has grown up in a quiet backwater of London, with parents who desire nothing more out of life than to pass unnoticed. "A life that isn't peaceful is no life at all", her father says. One of the most vivid memories of her childhood is the appearance at their front door of a man who says he is her uncle - vivid not just for the way he was dressed (electric blue mohair suit, diamond watch) but because he caused her normally mouse-quiet father to scream, and shout, and swear, in a language she had never heard him speak before.

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.
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LibraryThing member mrstreme
The Clothes on Their Backs is the Orange- and Booker-nominated book by Linda Grant - and it's certainly worthy of its accolades. Set in London during the 1970's, it's an enthralling look at family relationships, war and growing up in the shadow of family secrets.

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.
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LibraryThing member kraaivrouw
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.
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LibraryThing member Laine-Cunningham
Fantastic story. This book follows a woman's life from her youth when she used clothes to define an identity she couldn't otherwise develop through her efforts to locate the past that was hidden from her by her parents. A great introspective work on what people find acceptable, why they might reject their relatives, and who they turn out to be themselves in the end.
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.
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LibraryThing member helenleech
Vivien's brought up in a family with a secret: a black-sheep uncle who nobody talks about. After she leaves school, she contrives to meet him and agrees to write his biography - both of them pretending not to know the other. Is he a low-life criminal, or is his present justified by his horrific past as a slave labourer in the war?… (more)
LibraryThing member bibliobibuli
Was very disappointed in this book as a choice for the Booker shortlist. It isn't a BAD book but it really doesn't stand out from the crowd for me. It felt dated and not terribly relevant. Got to the end and thought "Yeah, well so what?"

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member teresa1953
I enjoyed this book ...up to a point. I found the narrative wandered a bit and I didn't care deeply about what happened to the central character, Vivien. Having said that, the characters were beautifully illustrated and there was a true insight in to 70s London ...both the good and bad times.
LibraryThing member Mumineurope
Hungarian in London, Vivienne, Sandor, Ervin and Bertha
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
Here's the deal: I liked it, but I didn't love it. I thought it was good, but not great.

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).
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LibraryThing member kaulsu
This novel was listed (but did not win) the Mann Booker Prize.

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.
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LibraryThing member Whisper1
Using clothes as a metaphor, the author tells the story of Vivien, born to reclusive, secretive parents who, as she learns through her Uncle Sandor, escaped to England from Budapest during Nazi persecution.

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.
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LibraryThing member Ameise1
It was a lovely story how Vivien learned about her origin and her ancestors. Her parents were early refugees from Hungary whereas her uncle her father's brother was coming to London much later. Her parents were always worried about being sent back to Hungary. So they decided to cut off their past and to keep by themselves so there would never be a reason for sending them back to Hungary. Therefore they changed their family name and never told a word about their earlier life to Vivien. Vivien's uncle was the contrary of her parents. He was open minded and with his dark busyness he was walking mostly on the other side of the law. From him she learned all about her ancestry.… (more)
LibraryThing member amybrojo
A Booker Prize winning novel about a family immigrating to London during WWII. The daughter tries to forge her own life and identity while learning about her family's past from her disreputable uncle. I liked it but the story didn't draw me in as much as I would have liked.
LibraryThing member poonamsharma
A very unusual book. It is about Jewish immigrants. Two brothers: one called Ervin is timid in his new home, London. He almost forgets to live. And second brother Sandor who is brash is treated as a small-time slum lord. He is greeted by media frenzy as a criminal. Both brothers are estranged. Ervin tries to make life away from shadow of his brother Sandor.

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.

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LibraryThing member RefPenny
Vivian is the daughter of refugees - colourless people whose only desire is not to be noticed - and she is fascinated by her black sheep of an uncle. Posing as a stranger she gets a job writing her uncle's story and discovers her family's background.
LibraryThing member jayne_charles
This was a competently written account of two brothers, refugees from Hungary, and the daughter of one of them, living in London in the 60s and 70s. A great deal of effort goes into creating atmosphere, and the characters feel very real. On the other hand, the drama of the story is a little mute, and the way things turn out is given away at the start, so all you have to read for are the small revalations along the way. It was a slog at times, and I was glad to have it finished, but there were nevertheless some really well made points, and things to go away and ponder about.… (more)
LibraryThing member debutnovelist
A very absorbing read. I agree that I couldn't relate closely to the narrator. Perhaps this is as a result of her alienation from her surroundings and the people she encounters. I also found the concealment of identity (or the pretence of it) to be a bit conrived, but I did enjoy the read and felt informed as a result.
LibraryThing member Scrabblenut
This book was mesmerizing. It caught my attention from the beginning and never let it go. Vivien had led a sheltered life in London as the daughter of Hungarian refugees who never talked about the past or where they came from, and rejected the only relative to ever show up at their door, her uncle Sandor, saying only that he was a very bad man. When Vivien is jobless and grieving after losing her husband on their honeymoon, she meets her uncle in a park and agrees to work for him, transcribing his life story into a book, but she doesn't tell him who she really is. And thus she learns about her own history, and all the things her parents would never tell her. The book reads like a mystery and a memoir and the characters are all fascinating and complex, and nothing is ever black and white. Highly recommended.… (more)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

293 p.; 5.5 inches


143914236X / 9781439142363

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