The Clothes On Their Backs – Linda Grant

Morning all!

Today, I’m going to review The Clothes on Their Backs. The Clothes on Their Backs was a really interesting, if not predictable novel. I’ve read a Linda Grant novel before, We Had It So Good, but I really did not enjoy it. I found it a bit flat. Therefore, I went into reading this novel with little expectations. I was surprised! The plot was seamlessly fluid. The themes are not lightweight, but the artful crafting of language makes it feel like you are breezing through the plot. The themes are as relevant today as they were when this novel was originally published in 2008, they tend to stay with you after you’ve read the novel. 

The novel centres around Vivien Kovaks. She comes from a family of Jewish-Hungairian immigrants who arrived in 1938. They are relieved and grateful to England for giving them refuge. Vivien is the niece of Sandor Kovacs. He is presented as a deeply layered character throughout the novel. He is a rent baron, who made his fortune from the new London Afro-Caribbean immigrants in the 50s and 60s. The houses were a disgrace and incredibly small. Violence was used to remove tenants that were deemed unprofitable. Grant notes that this character was inspired by Peter Rachman. 

Sandor is a distant figure in Vivien’s childhood. Her father, Ervin, alludes to a past history where her uncle is a bad character and influence. At this time, it is still secret. Vivien has a vivid memory of Sandor and his girlfriend at the time appearing at the door of the family’s London apartment. She was 10 years old. The visit from her uncle threatens to disrupt their new peaceful lives in England. Sandor had bought a Toblerone for his niece, which her father forbade Vivien to have. Instead, she saw the girlfriend eat it as they walked away. 

‘He opened the gilt clasp of the girl’s crocodile bag and pulled out a bar of Toblerone the size and weight of a hammer.’

Ervin is adamant that nothing good will come out of his brother, and rather predictably (Ervin’s opinion), 8 months later, Sandor is sent to prison in a blaze of newspaper headlines. It is here that Ervin decides to change one letter of their last name, in order to break away any links between himself and Sandor. Vivien, like any curious 10 year old, is fascinated by the colourful character she saw for a split second at the door. The men parallel each other. Ervin is repeatedly seen hiding behind the door, scared of everything, whereas Sandor is presented as open, honest with nothing to hide. 

“Don’t ask questions. No one ever had a quiet life by asking questions, and a life that isn’t peaceful is no life at all.” 

Whilst Sandor is in prison, Vivien’s life takes a dramatic and tragic turn. Her husband dies in a freak accident days into their honeymoon. She returns home to her parents where it seems she is destined to live her previous life. However, a chance encounter with Sandor in a park saves her. It’s obvious that they know each other’s identities, but Vivien and Sandor act as if they are really strangers. Vivien gives him a false name, Miranda, as she is employed as his secretary. Sandor is writing his memoirs and needs her to take notes. The story she is given appears to be the story she’s been searching for all her life: her history. Questions regarding her parents, her uncle, where they came from and why. 

‘There were several moments in this conversation when I could have told my uncle who I was, and there were times too, I later understood, when he could have revealed himself to me too, for her recognised me at once, and not because he had a good memory, but because my father had gloatingly gone to see him in prison…’

Here the plot splits into Sandor’s relevations regarding his life, and Vivien’s intimate relations with Claude, one of Sandor’s tenants. Initially skeptical of what she is being told, she does come to empathise with her uncle. Someone is bound to make a profit out of a bad situation, what’s the harm if it’s you? In the background of the plot, contextually, the rise of the National Front in the 1970s is gaining momentum, and there is a feeling of increasing racial tension within London. Sandor worries about his girlfriend, Eunice. Vivien hands out leaflets for the Anti-Nazi League. There is a growing feeling of unease that this is all going to explode. Of course, it does when Sandor throws Vivien a 25th birthday party. It’s lavish and beautiful and results in the two admitting who they are, partly because Vivien’s parents attend. 

Throughout that summer, my parents’ fear and paranoia had been growing, until their anxiety burst out on to the surface and what had been a dream existence, a pleasant half-life, suddenly seemed to them like a walking nightmare.’ 

The party, overall, was a success, despite her father insulting Eunice. Despite this, Vivien felt unable to return home, so her uncle gave her a flat for free and she continued to make notes on her uncle’s memoirs. She also spends a lot of time reading and being with Claude. Sandor and Eunice plan their wedding and move in together. Sandor is more and more concerned about the types of people in the area where Eunice lives and is desperate for her to move in with him. 

“A different class of person lives over there… And not a nice class.” 

Vivien and Claude’s sexual relationship comes to an end, as they argue about Viven’s abortion. Knowing that violence would be the answer, she remained vague regarding the details to her uncle. Nevertheless, Vivien walks in on her uncle, Claude, blood and a knife. Knowing the police would send Sandor back to prison, only an ambulance was ordered. Vivien makes the call, and the police come. It was the end of Sandor. 

‘My uncle was in a cell and as soon as I saw him, I knew he was finished. I could tell that he would not survive and he didn’t.’ 

The novel ends with Vivien back in her parents flat listening to the tapes of her uncle. She gives them to Eunice, who still defends her love Sandor. The circular narration of the plot means the novel ends with Vivien and Eunice, some years later, just as the novel started. We as a reader have been on a whole journey of Viven’s life throughout the space of just under 300 pages. Eunice persuades Vivien to buy a red dress in order to reinvent herself. Clothes in this novel act as a means to show how they make you feel. They are the disguise we can take on and off or discarded if we no longer want them. We can’t trust that Vivien really knows who she is, despite the events within the novel. 

‘Whether they are true or false (and I have no cause to doubt them), this past is the only one I’ve got, there is no other available.’ 

I really enjoyed this novel. It’s not overly political, it doesn’t punch you in the face, but it leaves you questioning the hypocrisy of it all. Is it predictable? Potentially. However, the novel is successful at presenting a female view of this period of time. The growing unease nationally matches the growing unease felt by Ervin. There is a reason why this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and why it won an Orange prize. Definitely worth a read. 

BL xx


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Filed under Book review, Historical Fiction, Literature

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