January 2009

Beth Harrington

fiction

The Clothes On Their Backs by Linda Grant

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs catalogues the intergenerational struggle of a family of Hungarian refugees in the aftermath of World War II. Vivien Kovacs grows up in London with her reclusive, conservative parents, her world narrowed to that of Benson Court, the apartment building in which they live until their dying days. A wrench is thrown into the carefully-constructed placidity of this universe when Vivien is ten years-old and her uncle Sandor, long estranged from his brother, shows up at their door. Though her father curses him and refuses to let him inside, Vivien’s curiosity is piqued, especially after Sandor is imprisoned following a highly-publicized trial for violations and abuses as a slum landlord.

Upon entering womanhood, Vivien attempts to chart her own course, earning a degree and becoming engaged to a biochemistry student who accepts a position at a laboratory in America. However, all her plans are dashed when her new husband dies on their honeymoon in a bogus accident. Having nowhere to go except home again, Vivien decides to seek out her Uncle Sandor and piece together his history in his own words.

In The Clothes on Their Backs, Grant has created a cast of characters who are surprisingly easy to empathize with despite their complicated pasts and often unpleasant interactions with one another. In Vivien we meet a woman who tries to live a life that her parents would be proud of, only to find her future cut to the quick at the age of twenty-four. Her parents’ bland innocence belies the hardship they have endured as refugees without the luxury of a past they could return to. And of course, there is Sandor Kovaks, a man determined not only to survive but to indulge after experiencing the horrors of a Hungarian slave labor camp. He is a man unafraid to be evil yet never quite the monster others want him to be.

Within the network these characters exist in, Grant teases out some interesting wisdom about human nature and its inevitable ambivalence towards conflict. While men such as Sandor bear the physical and emotional scars of suffering, they also live with the knowledge of their endurance and their ability to supersede in times of struggle. Vivien, who has grown up in relative peace and prosperity, finds herself yearning for a way to make a difference and never quite succeeding. When the National Front begins to take hold of Britain, Vivien, eager to stand against what she fears to be the new fascism, joins the Anti-Nazi League and hands out leaflets. Upon telling Sandor of her activities, expecting him to be pleased, he responds, “Oh! A leaflet, very good. I feel safe now, and so will [my West Indian girlfriend] when I tell her.” (One cannot help but wonder what would happen if the likes of Sandor took a stroll through the grounds of a contemporary liberal arts college.)

Writing a review of this book is tricky now because it has already been nominated for a prestigious award (as the cover clearly states) and it already did not win. Did it deserve to win? I don’t quite think so. There are enough moments in the plot that do not make enough of themselves or transcend into actual events. Vivien’s purely erotic relationship with a sexy jeans-and-leather clad punk rings slightly false and does not feel fleshed-out. Sandor’s concluding episode of violence does not entirely make sense and Grant seems somewhat aware of this as she has Vivien explain to the reader why it might seem rational in an irrational mind. All this begs the question, did the book deserve to get nominated for the Booker? Possibly -- I would have to read some of the other contenders on the longlist to be certain. While some of its moments may be overwrought, The Clothes on Their Backs possesses its fair share of beautifully-written knowledge, perhaps best encapsulated by some advice Sandor gives his niece towards the end of the book: “You have to know that there is something else, something better, that is hidden from you, that they don’t want you to find out about […] and sometimes you have to go and take it.”

The Clothes On Their Backs by Linda Grant
Scribner
ISBN: 978-1-4391-4236-3
304 pages