By the time I picked up The Clothes on Their Backs from the library it had been widely lauded -shortlisted for the Booker Prize and longlisted for the Orange Prize – and so my expectations were high.
Vivian, a middle aged woman who has recently found herself alone in the world, finds her usual route through London blocked and walks down a particular street that she hasn’t visited for years. On that street is a dress shop, and inside Vivian a familiar face – Eunice. Vivian steps inside and the two women talk for the first time in years. And Eunice sells Vivian a dress that reminds her of the woman she used to be.
It is a wonderful opening and sets things up nicely. I recognised the London streets, I could place women like Vivian and Eunice and I was intrigued to find out what linked them.
And so the story moved into the past.
Vivian grew up in the 1970s, the only child of Hungarian immigrants. Ervian and Berta didn’t talk about the past and they were happy to live a quiet life, going out only to work and to shop. Maybe they were scared; maybe they though they had already had enough luck already, escaping their troubled homeland; or maybe they were one of those happily married couples who are quite content to just spend their days together.
But that was not the way for the young Vivian. She transforms herself from a quiet child into a colourful woman by exchanging her ordinary clothes for vintage chic.
“The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in. … A million imperfections mar us. … So the most you can do is put on a new dress, a different tie.”
And one day, when Vivien is mourning the husband who died on their honeymoon and without any purpose in life, she meets her uncle.
The young Vivian had been intrigued by her Uncle Sandor. He was a flamboyant figure, clearly a successful man, but the only time he visited the family home Ervin threw him out and refused to explain why.
Sandor doesn’t recognise Vivian, but she recognises him. She gives him a false name and manages to secure the job of turning his life story into a book.
And what a story it is! Sandor survived labour camps, escaped from communist Hungary and now he is a convicted slum landlord. He is a charming man, but is he also an evil man or is he simply a man who lives by a different code?
Vivian learns about the past but, of course, that knowledge comes at a price.
The Clothes on their Backs was an interesting and readable book.
Linda Grant raises some interesting questions. Are we just the products of our pasts, or is there something more? How much do our clothes influence how we see ourselves, and how the world sees us? And are right and wrong fixed principles, or so they depend on our experiences and our views of the world?
The main setting, London in the 1970s, is vividly brought to life and is well used to support the book’s themes.
But Vivian is not a strong or interesting enough character to hold this together. And many potentially interesting angles and viewpoints are unexplored. In particular, Eunice, who promised so much in the opening chapter, reappears as just an adjunct to Sandor as his loyal companion, her background and point of view largely absent.
I read and remained interested to the end, but I put down the book a wider perspective could have provided so much more.
Maybe there was a bigger book inside this relatively short one hoping to get out?