Linda Grant: The Clothes On Their Backs
Linda Grant comes to this year’s Booker longlist following on from her longlisting for this year’s Orange Prize, an accolade she won in 2000 with her second novel, When I Lived In Modern Times. Her third novel, Still Here, flirted with the Booker back in 2002, but never made it to the shortlist. The Clothes On Their Backs (2008), her fourth novel, might yet see her take one step further to the Booker, especially in a year where, judging by the discussions on the Booker site, the field seems average.
Although Grant’s family history is lodged in a distant Russian-Polish background, The Clothes On Their Backs imagines a Jewish Hungarian one. And the Hungarian connection is here in force, with poet and translator Georges Szirtes appearing three times over: in the dedication, the acknowledgements, and an epigraph. Call it a three piece suit, which is fitting as The Clothes On Their Backs is a novel all about clothes and what it means to wear them.
The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in. We are all trapped with these thick calves or pendulous breasts, our sunken chests, our dropping jowls. A million imperfections mar us. …So the most you can do is put on a new dress, a different tie. We are forever turning into someone else, and should never forget that someone else is always looking.
Putting on a new dress is Vivian Kovacs, the English born child of Hungarian immigrants. When she was growing up there was a wardrobe full of hand-me-down clothes in her parents’ house. Now, thinking back, there are no family photographs showing she ever wore them. (“As far as I knew, no evidence existed that I was ever a child.”) Denying Vivien a record of her past isn’t all they are guilty of – they deny her their past too.
Because my parents never answered any questions about the past – that’s finished, it’s over and done with, here you are in England, that other place has nothing to do with you, stop bothering your head with this rubbish, no, no, no – I learned to stop asking, and eventually I forgot all about wanting to ask. Suddenly, a treasure chest had opened out and spilled all these precious objects.
The treasure chest is Vivien’s uncle, Sándor, a refugee from the Hungarian revolution who has set himself up as a slum landlord, based on Peter Rachman. Back in 1977, when she knew him, Sándor paid her to write up his memoirs, as he talked about growing up in Hungary, and the horrors faced there, the likes of which not even her father had experienced. In these recollections, her uncle deflects any responsibility to himself arguing that his actions, regardless of their immorality, were necessary. That he can face up to his actions and move on them puts him in direct opposition to Vivien’s father:
My father was terrified of change. When change was in the air anything could happen, and he already suffered from an anxiety: that any small disturbance in his circumstances would bring everything down – the flat, the wife, the job, the new daughter, London itself, then England, and he would slide down the map of the world, back to Hungary, clinging on uselessly, ridiculously, with his fingers clutching the smooth, rolling surface of the globe.
Something that could bring down everything down are events in 1977. Having escaped to England to escape fascism, the rise of the National Front provides worrying echoes of home. The uniformed goons that patrol the streets further add to the novel’s exploration of what clothes mean to the person wearing them. But, all extraneous characters aside, the novel’s main focus is the relationships between the members of the Kovacs family, and these are without doubt the most interesting parts of The Clothes On Their Back.
Sadly, Grant adds other touches to Vivien’s life – all verging on the ridiculous; all pertaining to equally doomed relationships – that detract from the story’s potential. Plus, while the flavour of her immigrants’ speech is speckled with the occasional grasp for a word, sometimes the words in their mouth come across feeling strained:
‘Vivien, I feel I am in that programme Perry Mason and you are the lawyer and I am the accused. What do you call it, cross-examination. I wish you would stop.’
But cross-examination may just be what The Clothes On Their Backs needs. The first chapter offers up many discussion points that don’t become clear until the book has unravelled its events and themes. Then, a passing mention of the London bombings, hints again at clothes and the pigeonholing of people in the interests of persecution. It’s a wardrobe of words made all the more interesting for the skeletons in its closet, although the experience for its narrator, recounted thirty years on, comes across as little more than second hand.
August 17, 2008