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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

15 responses to Linda Grant: The Clothes On Their Backs

  1. Pingback: booklit » Blog Archive » Man Booker Prize 2008 - Longlist Announced

  2. I’m glad to hear your thought on this one, Stewart. Indeed, your review was about as interesting in its discussion as I imagine the book to be! I’m just about to get into the book, and though you point out some interesting flaws, it sounds like this one might be better than most in the field this year!

  3. Tom Cunliffe said:

    Thanks for commenting on mine Stewart and providing a list of other Belgian writers – ah yes, Omega Minor of course, which is already on my shelf, but looks a little daunting.

    I never read When I Lived in Modern Times so am unfamiliar with Linda Grant. It will be interesting to watch its progress.

  4. Pingback: Bloggers take on the Booker longlist

  5. John Self said:

    My only prior experience of Grant was as a newspaper columnist (she wrote for the Guardian, or am I thinking of someone else?). Actually that’s not true: I remember for some reason being keen as mustard to read her debut novel The Cast Iron Shore, but giving up on it early on. Might just return to it, and try When I Lived in Modern Times, because I am one-third of the way through The Clothes on their Backs and loving it. Mind you, I thought the same of the Rushdie at this stage so I’ll say no more for now.

  6. KevinfromCanada said:

    I read this book in the spring, liked it and promptly forgot it. I was most surprised when it showed up on the Booker longlist.

    I reread it this weekend and, while still not super impressed, have to say that it holds up very well in a second read and is creeping up my Booker shortlist.

    Stewart’s review is both fair and accurate — I would only suggest that he may attach weight to shortcomings that others would overlook or overlook strengths that do not fit his experience. This is certainly a book that I would not hesitate to recommend, even if I have to say that it is not a great book.

  7. Stewart said:

    Stewart’s review is both fair and accurate — I would only suggest that he may attach weight to shortcomings that others would overlook or overlook strengths that do not fit his experience.

    That’s a great piece of feedback, Kevin. I guess I do home in on small niggles and should learn to get over them.

  8. KevinfromCanada said:

    I certainly didn’t mean that you “should learn to get over them” since I would agree that each criticism you raise has validity and deserves to be stated. What I meant to say is that other readers might find those shortcomings less important. Then again, maybe not — which is why they should be stated in the first place.

  9. jem said:

    Good to review your thoughts on this one Stewart. It has come out my favourite so far, although I’m also enjoying the current one (‘The Secret Scripture’).

    I felt as if her writing was a little erratic, sometimes being spot on but sometimes wobbling a bit. And I agree that her parents and uncles dialogue read at times like a 70’s sitcom impression of someone trying to speak English.

  10. Stewart said:

    Good to review your thoughts on this one Stewart.

    It may well be the last one you read thoughts on for a while, jem. Since reading it I’ve made way into Hanif’s A Case Of Exploding Mangoes (bored!), read the first hundred pages of John Berger’s From A To X twice (bored and lost!), read the first fifty pages of Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog (too much happening in too many places with too many people in too many scenes) and the first chapter of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea Of Poppies. In the end I’ve decided to break it up a bit and read something else because, that way, it will be something I expect to enjoy since I picked it.

  11. That makes sense Stewart, I don’t think I’d have the heart to read through this many apparently not that great novels. Particularly as word from other bloggers comes in about their quality.

    Good luck with whatever you pick next.

  12. RosyB said:

    Interesting review, Stewart – enjoyed reading that. Sounds a curious book and an original premise.

    Funny you said you’re turning to something else for a while as I’ve been intrigued by the way the Booker has galvanised all the bloggers into reading the lists – particularly as many seem unenthusiastic about particular titles before starting. I don’t quite understand it because, prizes or no prizes, surely some books just aren’t going to be subject matters or styles that will appeal to all. And if they don’t appeal to a particular individual, is there point in reading them? Is it a duty – reading the Booker list? Or more of a communal thing? Mind you, I do enjoy reading reviews when there are several knocking about the blogosphere at the same time to compare so maybe that’s part of the fun of reviewing the Booker longlist. And, having said that, I’m going to potter off and see if there are more reviews of this one on the other blogs. 🙂

  13. Stewart said:

    Is it a duty – reading the Booker list? Or more of a communal thing?

    More of a communal thing, I think. The Booker, after all, is one of the high profile literary prizes in stature and reward and generates a fair buzz. In previous years I’d read a few titles from the longlist and last year, along with a number of others, decided to read the thirteen. Sure there were titles I didn’t like, but then I don’t always like choices I do make on my own also. But it’s great to be reading the titles and actively comparing thoughts on the books with other bloggers, especially when the rest of the year reading lists are unlikely to converge – so I suppose it creates a real active sense of community between blogs. This year, every title I started after The Clothes On Their Backs did nothing for me and couldn’t hold my attention for long.

  14. Stewart said:

    The Clothes On Their Back has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

  15. Catherine said:

    Some interesting thoughts on the book from everyone who has posted. I am just part way through and am looking for some discussion questions for a book club discussion on the book. Has anyone found any online anywhere? Any help appreciated! Thank you.

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15 responses to Linda Grant: The Clothes On Their Backs

  1. Pingback: booklit » Blog Archive » Man Booker Prize 2008 - Longlist Announced

  2. I’m glad to hear your thought on this one, Stewart. Indeed, your review was about as interesting in its discussion as I imagine the book to be! I’m just about to get into the book, and though you point out some interesting flaws, it sounds like this one might be better than most in the field this year!

  3. Tom Cunliffe said:

    Thanks for commenting on mine Stewart and providing a list of other Belgian writers – ah yes, Omega Minor of course, which is already on my shelf, but looks a little daunting.

    I never read When I Lived in Modern Times so am unfamiliar with Linda Grant. It will be interesting to watch its progress.

  4. Pingback: Bloggers take on the Booker longlist

  5. John Self said:

    My only prior experience of Grant was as a newspaper columnist (she wrote for the Guardian, or am I thinking of someone else?). Actually that’s not true: I remember for some reason being keen as mustard to read her debut novel The Cast Iron Shore, but giving up on it early on. Might just return to it, and try When I Lived in Modern Times, because I am one-third of the way through The Clothes on their Backs and loving it. Mind you, I thought the same of the Rushdie at this stage so I’ll say no more for now.

  6. KevinfromCanada said:

    I read this book in the spring, liked it and promptly forgot it. I was most surprised when it showed up on the Booker longlist.

    I reread it this weekend and, while still not super impressed, have to say that it holds up very well in a second read and is creeping up my Booker shortlist.

    Stewart’s review is both fair and accurate — I would only suggest that he may attach weight to shortcomings that others would overlook or overlook strengths that do not fit his experience. This is certainly a book that I would not hesitate to recommend, even if I have to say that it is not a great book.

  7. Stewart said:

    Stewart’s review is both fair and accurate — I would only suggest that he may attach weight to shortcomings that others would overlook or overlook strengths that do not fit his experience.

    That’s a great piece of feedback, Kevin. I guess I do home in on small niggles and should learn to get over them.

  8. KevinfromCanada said:

    I certainly didn’t mean that you “should learn to get over them” since I would agree that each criticism you raise has validity and deserves to be stated. What I meant to say is that other readers might find those shortcomings less important. Then again, maybe not — which is why they should be stated in the first place.

  9. jem said:

    Good to review your thoughts on this one Stewart. It has come out my favourite so far, although I’m also enjoying the current one (‘The Secret Scripture’).

    I felt as if her writing was a little erratic, sometimes being spot on but sometimes wobbling a bit. And I agree that her parents and uncles dialogue read at times like a 70’s sitcom impression of someone trying to speak English.

  10. Stewart said:

    Good to review your thoughts on this one Stewart.

    It may well be the last one you read thoughts on for a while, jem. Since reading it I’ve made way into Hanif’s A Case Of Exploding Mangoes (bored!), read the first hundred pages of John Berger’s From A To X twice (bored and lost!), read the first fifty pages of Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog (too much happening in too many places with too many people in too many scenes) and the first chapter of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea Of Poppies. In the end I’ve decided to break it up a bit and read something else because, that way, it will be something I expect to enjoy since I picked it.

  11. That makes sense Stewart, I don’t think I’d have the heart to read through this many apparently not that great novels. Particularly as word from other bloggers comes in about their quality.

    Good luck with whatever you pick next.

  12. RosyB said:

    Interesting review, Stewart – enjoyed reading that. Sounds a curious book and an original premise.

    Funny you said you’re turning to something else for a while as I’ve been intrigued by the way the Booker has galvanised all the bloggers into reading the lists – particularly as many seem unenthusiastic about particular titles before starting. I don’t quite understand it because, prizes or no prizes, surely some books just aren’t going to be subject matters or styles that will appeal to all. And if they don’t appeal to a particular individual, is there point in reading them? Is it a duty – reading the Booker list? Or more of a communal thing? Mind you, I do enjoy reading reviews when there are several knocking about the blogosphere at the same time to compare so maybe that’s part of the fun of reviewing the Booker longlist. And, having said that, I’m going to potter off and see if there are more reviews of this one on the other blogs. 🙂

  13. Stewart said:

    Is it a duty – reading the Booker list? Or more of a communal thing?

    More of a communal thing, I think. The Booker, after all, is one of the high profile literary prizes in stature and reward and generates a fair buzz. In previous years I’d read a few titles from the longlist and last year, along with a number of others, decided to read the thirteen. Sure there were titles I didn’t like, but then I don’t always like choices I do make on my own also. But it’s great to be reading the titles and actively comparing thoughts on the books with other bloggers, especially when the rest of the year reading lists are unlikely to converge – so I suppose it creates a real active sense of community between blogs. This year, every title I started after The Clothes On Their Backs did nothing for me and couldn’t hold my attention for long.

  14. Stewart said:

    The Clothes On Their Back has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

  15. Catherine said:

    Some interesting thoughts on the book from everyone who has posted. I am just part way through and am looking for some discussion questions for a book club discussion on the book. Has anyone found any online anywhere? Any help appreciated! Thank you.

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