Linda Grant: The Clothes on Their Backs

Actually, before you even read my review, I’d like to give a little plug for The Book Depository, which I found out about when I followed the link in Mark Twaite’s name in my post on Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K. (Mark Twaite is the Managing Editor at The Book Depository). I had the eight longlist titles available in the U.S., and didn’t know if I could really justify buying the rest from the UK and paying shipping, etc., especially when the books so far have not been that great. But The Book Depository offers free international shipping, and their prices are excellent, too, even with the exchange rate. In fact, some of the books were as cheap as if I waited for them to be published in hardback in the U.S. So, now, on to the review of The Clothes on Their Backs (2008), which I wouldn’t have yet if not for The Book Depository’s great service!

Linda Grant is a new author for me, though I’ve seen her name pop up now and then, usually in reference to When I Lived in Modern Times, which won the Orange Prize in 2000. I wasn’t all that anxious to read this book, truth be told. The title, for one thing, did not appeal to me; looked like a heavy-handed metaphor. But I guess I’m going to have to approach more books this way. The books on the longlist that I wasn’t anxious to read have turned out to be the most enjoyable, including this one.

The narrator is Vivien, is a twenty-five-year-old in London in the 1970s, when most of this novel takes place. She has moved back in with her parents while in a state of depression following a tragic death:

You take a misstep, you turn your head the wrong way when you cross the road, you gargle with bleach instead of mouthwash, it’s just ridiculous the doors that are slightly ajar between life and death.

Still in the slump of depression but looking for a way out, Vivien runs into her uncle, Sándor Kovacs, whom she has met only once before back in 1963, when he came to visit her father, his brother. Her father threw him out — actually refused to even receive him — and she didn’t see Sándor again until this meeting in the 1970s, though she heard about him in the news frequently enough when he went to prison a few months after showing on her doorstep.

When they meet again in the 70s, Sándor is getting old. Thinking he doesn’t recognize her, she gives him a phony name and begins to work for him, transcribing his life story as he tells it. She goes into this despising the man, just looking for a bit of informaiton about her own past. For example, all she knows about her parents is that they were Hungarian and they came to London before World War II broke out, saving them from a lot of hardship, though, honestly, you wouldn’t know it to look at them. They keep to themselves and divulge nothing about their past.

“If anyone tells you about your grandmother it’s me.”

“But you didn’t tell me.”

“So you could have asked.”

“And what would you have said?”

“Nothing! What’s she got to do with you?”

But Vivien is learning anyway. Through her sessions with her uncle, Vivien not only learns about her grandmother, she also learns about Sándor’s relationship with her father. I began to worry at about this point. Was Vivien just a vessle for Grant to write about the relationship between two Hungarian immigrants, one who got away before the war and one who did not? Happily, no. Vivien and her story remain distinct. And though her heritage is important, the novel maintains the focus on who Vivien is now (well, in the 1970s, at any rate).

Of course, from the first chapter in the book, which takes place thirty years after the book’s main events, we know that there’s more to the story. In that first chapter, Vivien runs into Eunice, her uncle’s girlfriend. Eunice somehow blames Vivien for Sándor’s death.

I have not forgotten our summer together, when I learned the only truth that matters: that suffering does not ennoble and that survivors survive because of their strength or cunning or luck, not their goodness, and certainly not their innocence.

The great thing about this book is that all of this plot doesn’t destroy the characterization. I like a good plot, but it’s always sad when an author lets the plot run over the characters, making the characters just a device to get across some clever twists and turns.

Something that never went away though was my dislike of the title. Sure, clothes are an important motif in the book, but to me it was only a motif, and not a particularly insightful one either. To me, the motif was more one to give the story some internal structure, and works much as in many other books. It was nothing new or interesting, and it didn’t feel like Grant wanted that to stand out too much because the motif was not particularly in my face in the book. In fact, without the title telling me to pay attention to clothes I think I would have to have read the book a few times before really appreciating the quantity of clothing connections. So I feel the title cheapened the book a tad, making something subtle the supposed center show. There is much more to this book than the title suggests.

So I enjoyed this book. Loved it? No. I doubt it will stick with me too long. But I appreciated it, especially in contrast most others on this blasted Booker longlist!

15 thoughts on “Linda Grant: The Clothes on Their Backs

  1. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’d like to start by seconding your plug for the Book Depository — I suspect the greatest impact for me of Booker 2008 will be discovering this wonderful service. It delivers books quickly and at wonderful value — far better than any other UK supplier that I have tried, including Waterstones or Amazon. I note from the website that they have 8 fulfillment centres in the U.S. — I would not be at all surprised to see the company take some initiatives there.

    I don’t think this is a SPOILER comment but it might be — the review’s observations about the title (and cover) of this book are dead on. It is true that Grant uses the “clothes” theme to both open and close the book, but she only uses it for context. It has virtually no place in the central part of the book, where other themes are far more important. And given that she was only married for two days (maybe three), the man’s suit in the closet on the cover is positively misleading. For me, the strongest of the real themes of the book is the contrast between how Sandor and Vivien’s father react to their immigrant experience — and the questions that raises in Vivien’s mind. I’ll admit this is a Commonwealth issue, not a U.S. one. What this book explores is the notion of “inclusion” of immigrants — and what sort of compromise that requires (and whether Vivian is willing to make any of those compromises). That is totally outside the “melting pot” concept of immigration that is the U.S. norm, but I still think Grant explores themes and experiences that are of value. And Trevor’s review is excellent.

  2. KevinfromCanada says:

    Sorry about a second comment, but in rereading the review, I did overlook Trevor’s most important observation. For anyone considering reading this book, its greatest strength is that Grant uses the development of character(s) as her central strength (go back to the review to see how). Unlike every other book on the Booker longlist, where characters either are caricatures or exist only to service the plot, this book develops its themes through the strengths, weaknesses, conflicts and hopes of its central characters. They become very real people (even her father) and that makes this a very rewarding book.

  3. Kevin, please feel free to comment whenever you want. I definitely appreciate it because it’s through the comments that I continue to learn about the book – and your comments are definitely not an exception!

    Your perspective on the immigrant experience is very interesting to me. While reading this book, none of that occurred to me. Some of that may be because I lived for a while in London and have a bit of that perspective too, but mostly I think it just didn’t cross my mind!

    And I’m happy to report that this is a book that I’m getting more and more fond of after reading it. Others, most of the longlist in fact, have already faded, but this one is still there and I like it more now than I did when I wrote the review. A strong book.

  4. John Self says:

    I agree Trevor and Kevin – and also about the weakness of the clothes metaphor which, like Trevor, I would probably not have picked up on if it wasn’t hammered home on the cover and in the title. One UK newspaper review of the book opened:

    LINDA GRANT IS a writer of perceptive journalism about the emotional resonance of clothes, and now explores the theme in greater depth in her latest novel…

    I haven’t read any of Grant’s journalism on the subject, but my gut feeling would be that she explores the theme in less depth in the book. However this is not particularly troubling when the rest of the book is so good. (Incidentally, if we’re deconstructing the cover image, you can see that the walking stick is photoshopped in, as the back cover contains a portion of that part of the wardrobe, but with the stick nowhere to be seen!)

  5. If Linda Grant has written journalism on the emotional resonance of clothes then I agree with John – she had to have done it in greater depth in her journalism than in this book. Some of this may be because so many other things in the book stand out much more. Not to mention the fact that the emotional resonance of clothing, at least as portrayed in the book, wasn’t anything particularly new or insightful.

    But, John, how did you ever pick that out about the cover? I had to look at it a few times to figure out how you’d found out that the cane was an addition (I did see it)! I love discovering elements in book covers, but man, what an eye!

  6. Isabel says:

    Sometimes authors have no say on the title of the book. I wonder whether this is the case for this novel?

  7. John Self says:

    I doubt it Isabel – there are plenty of references to clothes in the book, so it’s clearly intentional. It can’t be that common, surely, for authors to have no say in the title? Having said that, I did buy a book this week, a debut novel by Rana Dasgupta from a couple of years ago called Tokyo Cancelled. His original title was The Transit Papers, which apparently was deemed insufficiently interesting by the publishers.

  8. Linda Grant says:

    Here’s a clue. Have you noticed that Vivien is always being dressed by other people?

  9. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’m certainly not going to get into an argument with the author but…..

    Yes, I did. And thought it was an interesting device. But I will admit that for me it was symbolism that often got in the way of more interesting themes.

    I would also note from my experience that the action/metaphor/device that is central to authors, playwrights or artists in creating a work is often not the one that lands with readers, audience or viewers. While it undoubtedly drives the creative process, it does not necessarily land the same way with the audience. I certainly enjoyed the outcome so if I have a quibble with device, it is only a quibble.

    Whatever I may think about the title and cover, I definitely feel this a very good book. Thanks.

  10. Ms Grant, thanks for the clue – and the fine book!

    The Clothes On Their Backs is one of the only titles on the longlist that I’d be happy to reread to absorb more of the substance that I missed the first time, and your clue gives me just the reason to do that! (It is also the only book on the longlist that has made me interested in the author’s other titles, so I look forward to visiting more of your work).

  11. John Self says:

    I’ll third that sentiment. More significantly, from a bibliophile with constant storage-space issues, of the 12-and-a-third* longlisted titles I’ve read, The Clothes on their Backs is the only one I’ve kept my copy of. I also picked up When I Lived in Modern Times this week as a result.

    * The Northern Clemency is taking a really long time…

  12. KevinfromCanada says:

    Okay, that makes three of us who are ordering up Linda Grant’s backlist. I’m quite looking forward to her other books. In my previous life as a newspaper editor, I directed an international news service — and listened to constant complaints about trying to cover Israel. So in addition to her novels, I’m ordering that book.

    As for The Northern Clemency, I’m stalled on Page 271 and keep harking back to JohnSelf’s post of a few weeks ago that he had read 300 pages and set it aside for later. I wondered then about how anyone could read 300 pages and then set the book aside (as opposed to, say, burning it). I am now getting an understanding — only sheer obstinacy is keeping me going.

    So far, the procrastination has led to a rereading of Netherland — alas, the book did not hold up to a second read (sorry Trevor, I know you like this one). I’d set Linda Grant’s book aside for my wife (who is much more sensitive to clothing issues than I, so I’m hoping for some helpful direction on stuff that I missed in the first two reads) — if she doesn’t get to it soon, I may go back now that I have the clue.

    And, what most intrigues me, is I am feeling that I should have another look at A Fraction of The Whole — outside of the Grant and The Lost Dog, it is the only book that memory says I may have underrated the first time around.

  13. Isabel says:

    I’ve gone to a couple of author readings in which they mention that the publisher selected the title. (But don’t ask me which ones; I forgot!)

  14. It certainly happens, I don’t think it’s common though (hopefully not anyway).

    What is pretty common apparently is no say over the cover, which I grant is far less important but it can still lead to authors hating the covers their books go out under.

Leave a Reply