I am a lazy reader. I do not like to sing for my supper. My favourite thing about reading The Clothes on Their Backs is that it is effortless; Grant’s writing is subtly superior and totally consumable. The desire to devour the plot only adds to it’s merit.
Vivien Kovacs grows up in London as the daughter of Hungarian immigrants, unsure of how to be her Hungarian self or her English self or someone else entirely. A very Grant-ish search for self, indeed.
The narrative begins with Vivien as a widow for the second time, and recounts her younger life; her banal and timid youth, her experimental university years and traumatic adulthood, all pivoting around her estranged uncle, Sandor, a convicted slumlord. Vivien, posing under a false name, becomes employed by her uncle so he can tell his story; his pre-war Jewish life, his war, his brave decision to immigrate, and his rise to power as a nefarious landlord. Vivien tries to discover herself in these stories, and we are always trying to determine whether to pity or criminalise this man who buys his niece cake and loves a woman so tenderly. The tension becomes thick and recognisable as family-drama ensues and Vivien’s already-complicated relationships shift. A murderous end changes them all again and left me bereft.
Grant convincingly portrays the latter half of the twentieth century, with colour and fabric and in a way even (this) millennials can recognise. The clothes, without exhausting description and in an evocatively probing manner, bring to life punks, skinheads, gangsters, tarts and slumlords. I love that this is a book that tells you not to judge a book by it’s cover, and employing clothes to do so.
At a time, I suspected Sandor was Vivien’s father, but this might have just been Grant toying even more with the theme of identity. At a time, I think even Vivien worried about that. It’s a family-drama, a coming and re-coming of age (could use the proper word which is bildungsroman and probably my fav word ever, but this is the internet and i’m scared). It’s a woman’s natural exploration of her world through the sixties, seventies and into the eighties. I would personally categorise The Clothes On Their Backs as a coming of age drama, with a political edge.
Wordy enough for ya?
It is simply, beautifully put together. I cannot express how the sentences just sing next to each other.
As I’ve mentioned and will probably go on to mention many times here, I adore Linda Grant, and whilst The Clothes on Their Backs has not been my absolute favourite story of hers, it has been my favourite to read. I could discuss this book’s layers for months, so get in touch if you’ve read it!