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THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS by Linda Grant Kirkus Star


by Linda Grant

Pub Date: Nov. 25th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4391-4319-3
Publisher: Scribner

A brilliant little novel—winner of the Orange Prize—concerning family, memory and transformation.

In passing a formerly smart London dress shop now going out of business, Vivien Kovaks runs into the shop proprietor, a former lover of her uncle Sándor, a week after the death of Vivien’s father. Grant (When I Lived in Modern Times, 2001, etc.) uses this chance encounter to set the scene for Vivien’s reminiscence about her past, a time decades before when she had “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.” Vivien sweeps us into a narrative about her parents, Ervin and Berta, refugees from Hungary who moved to London shortly after World War II to start a new life. Vivien is curious about their past because it contains the seeds of her own, but her parents are decidedly reticent about sharing information on their former life, preferring instead to live within a narrowly circumscribed and risk-free circle of silence. Enter Sándor, a flamboyant and successful slumlord who’s spent time in gaol for his shady business activities (and who’s been labeled “the face of evil” by the London press). He’s now out of prison, bent but not broken, and he commissions Vivien to help him write his life story; both are aware of their family connection, yet both keep up the pretense that they’re just strangers. Vivien must keep her role of amanuensis secret from her father, who’s violently opposed to Sándor’s dubious professional activities. Much of the story involves Vivien getting in touch with her own identity by uncovering her father’s; by dealing with the freakish and tragic death of her young husband on their honeymoon; and by engaging in and then walking away from a torrid sexual relationship with a young punk.

Intelligent, distinguished and psychologically astute.