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The Clothes On Their Backs by Linda Grant

The year was 1977, Vivien spends a quiet childhood encapsulated in the present, sealed off from the past by her timid refugee parents by self immolation, so Vivien quipped. She’s ten when she finds out that she has a relative that her parents tried to shield her from. To the horror of Vivien’s father, her glamorous, dangerous uncle appears at their door, dressed in a purple mohair suit with his leopard-print-clad mistress upon his arm. But why is Uncle Sándor so violently unwelcome in her parent’s home?

Ever since I read Linda Grant’s When I Lived In Modern Times I like the way Linda Grant writes about displacement and all, and I wanted to read a second book to reaffirm if she is potentially my favourite author ….  verdict? Maybe not. This book is good but not great.

The book started off sluggish, perhaps a reflection of her dreary life with her parents who live in recluse after migrating from Budapest to London. There is something horrifying about their past but Vivien’s parents refuse to talk about it, there was no record of her grandparents and what happens to them, no mention of a relative, so one can only imagine the surprise when Vivien knew about an uncle who is living in the same city. One quarter into the book, things starts to look up when by a chance encounter (which is unbelievable), Vivien became her uncle’s transcriber of his life story. Uncle Sándor is known in the city as a notorious landlord who take advantage of new migrants to the country, exploit them with high rent and bad living conditions. It is interesting to know that this gave birth to the concept and establishment of the social housing industry, as the council build houses for people who can’t afford private lets and owe a duty of care to the tenants. This books have chosen to draw on settings and background that are familiar to me. I work in the social housing sector and on top of that I have wonderful and memorable holidays in the charming city of Budapest, the character Vivien live in Benson Court and grew up around Marylebone Road, which is where this book is borrowed, The Marylebone library, all provide me with that all familiar, triple strength of magnet that made me stay glued to the story. Uncle Sándor though has a love of his life, Eunice, whom he adores. Eunice runs her own clothes store and is refined and fashionable.

Since we know that Linda Grant is a Jewish, so she writes about Jewish history. I almost would have guess that certain members in the family of the characters in the book would have “went up in smoke”. The mention of Fascist Arrow Cross sent chills down my spine as I remembered when I was in Budapest I walked close to the banks of Danube river, at the parliament part of the river and visit the Holocaust Memorial Shoes. At the edge of the  embankment we saw dozens of shoes cast in iron, marked the spot where hundreds of Jewish adults and children were machine-gunned by the Fascist Arrow Cross and their bodies thrown into the Danube. Before being massacred, they were made to remove their coats and footwear, which were earmarked for use by German civilians. The poignant scene of the shoes was very sad.

It was heartbreaking to see all these metal shoes lined up on the banks and I stared dumbfounded on one shoe which may have fitted a 3 to 5-year-old little boy.

I also visited the Great Synagogue in Budapest. The Doharty ut (street) Great synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and stands supremely at number 7. Built in Byzantine style by the Viennese architect Ludwig Forster in 1854-9, it has three naves and following orthodox tradition, separate galleries for women. Together the naves and galleries can housed 3,000 people, since 1931 it has been home to the Jewish Museum, with relics relating to the history of the city’s Jews.

I was mesmerised by the beauty of the synagogue. Traditionally synagogue do not have long benches, but the benches and the position of the reading platform, reflect elements of Judaic reform in this synagogue. The synagogue is built with the best of European and Oriental Jews architectural characteristics and it gives an aura of both Oriental and European class and elegance. The compound also houses a good collection of Jewish relics in the Jewish Museum and a Memorial Park for victims of the Holocaust.


One similar thread between this book and When I Lived in Modern Times, is that both mention of a relationship with a boy, in this book Claude, who had no shared interest except for a relationship of convenience; but eventually the protagonist would leave the boy, marry well and live a contented life. Fairy tale like but it gives me a sense of redemption for the character after what she has been through.

I knew it was almost over, but that did not mean that I would ever stop longing for him, or that the tenderness he sometimes showed would not continue to move me, or touch a heart that was already healing itself with invisible calluses.

I haven’t read books about the 70’s and 80’s of Britain, so the mentions of masses got caught up with divided ideologies such as National Front, punk heads, Anti Nazi League etc and with political logos printed on the book, was both an eye opener and fascinating for me. It is apt that Grant cast an insecure girl, Vivien, set against an insecure Britain with its evolving racial mix in the 70’s.

The book resonates at every level. The book speaks to me about parental unexpressed love, about how parents acted contrary to their children’s favour to shield them from the ugliness and atrocities of humanity, to give their children a fighting chance to start anew. One without family history has no life anchor. Sometimes things are better left buried than it is to know the ugly truth; and like Uncle Sándor, one do what they know best to survive, because that is the only way they know how. Some chose to live with their principles and some not; sometimes you cut ties with your own family member (and change your last name) because of the possible harm and reputational damage that may occur to your family in the future…. so on and so forth.

But the history of the Kovacs family, our history in Hungary, continued to crowd in on me, and the many dead and their past lives set themselves up in the darker corners of the room. In a few weeks I had gone from being a girl without a history to a girl whose past was what was meant by teachers when they spoke of it, book history. The various choices made by my uncle and my father; one to survive against all the odds, the other to exist in a half-live, required me to ask myself what I would have done in their place. I did not have, innately, my uncle’s ruthless instincts, his calculating trader’s brain which was prepared to deal in any commodity, including human beings. But nor could I have stood the decades of self-immolation that my gather had imposed upon himself; his abject surrender to all authority exasperated me. I wanted to live. I just wanted to live.

and if life took you to the uncertain, strange margins, to the places where people struggled to express their whole being, through dress or sex or whatever form such individuality took, then that’s where I would go.

It is a subtle and understated book with different ideas but without solid conclusion. The reader make their own mind about it. It perked my interest one minute and then the next minute the story dampens my interest with litany of monologue about the harm of destructive relationship and fascination with Uncle Sándor. It is suppose to be good stuff but there is something I didn’t like about the book that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s Claude. I hate that character. One thing is for sure, the book is not all about fashion valuation about wrap dress, bolero jacket or snakeskin platform shoes!


Interesting facts about the book: The character of Sándor Kovacs was inspired by that of the Notting Hill landlord, Peter Rachman, who was born in Lvov, Poland in 1919, survived the war in Siberian labour camp, came to Britain as refugee in 194 and died in London in 192. At the time of his death he was still searching for any surviving relatives. For information on housing London in the post-war period, Grant has drawn on his biography Rachman, by Shirley Green.

Winner of the South Bank Show literature Award, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Paperback. Publisher: Little Brown 2009; Length: 293 pages;  Setting: 1977 London.  Source: Westminster Marylebone Library. Finished reading on: 15th July 2011.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


8 thoughts on “The Clothes On Their Backs by Linda Grant

  1. I’m sorry to hear this one didn’t quite measure up for you. I adored We Had It So Good and just started When I Lived in Modern Times. I hope to get to this one soon too.

    Posted by nomadreader | July 25, 2011, 3:58 pm
    • Nomadreader,
      I can’t put my finger why I didn’t like it, maybe at times it is just so bland and dull… but Grant is a good writer and I’m willing to try her other books like the one you have mentioned and “Still there”. I have read “When I Lived in Modern Times” and simply adore it! Thanks for your first comment here.

      Posted by JoV | July 26, 2011, 7:33 am
  2. I almost took a class where this one was on the reading list, but then changed my mind 😀 But it still sounds like a very good book, and I find pictures of left behind shoes heartbreaking. The play with presence/absence is so powerful.

    Posted by Bina | July 25, 2011, 8:13 pm
  3. great review Jo v I ve not read grant but might try it after this review ,the shoes remind me of the scene in before sunrise where they vist the grave yard of people that drowned in the river in Vienna ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | July 25, 2011, 10:18 pm
    • Stu,
      Thanks for the kind words. I saw this at sunset at the Danube and it was surreal and sad. I’m interested to know more about that graveyard you mentioned. I was at Vienna at the same trip when I was at Budapest but haven’t heard of it.

      Posted by JoV | July 26, 2011, 7:50 am


  1. Pingback: It’s a Wrap! July 2011 « Bibliojunkie - August 1, 2011

  2. Pingback: We Had It So Good by Linda Grant « JoV's Book Pyramid - April 2, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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