Thursday, 5 March 2009

Book review: "The Clothes on their backs", by Linda Grant

We bought this book after a talk by Linda Grant at the Bath Book Festival on Saturday. At first glance it is not the sort of book that I would ordinarily read; I am not a fan of books about fashion. The title and the blurb on the back cover all mention clothes, and that was not a good sign.

However, within a few pages I could see why this book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The writing is elegant, and her descriptions - particularly of characters - are vivid, without being overpowering.

The book details the experiences of Vivien, the daughter of refugees who came to London just before the Second World War. She leads a closeted upbringing with parents who scarcely leave their flat, yet alone entertain. One day, when she is a small child, there is a strange visitor. It is her father's brother, Uncle Sándor, whose glamour is in stark contrast to her parent's manically austere ways. Her father throws the uncle out onto the street, and as she grows older she wonders why the brothers do not get on. A chance meeting in a park gives her the chance to find out.

The character of Uncle Sándor is very well drawn. He is a complex man, with a dark, deeply unpleasant side that can only partly be explained by his experiences in the war. In comparison, Vivien herself seems rather one-dimensional, as is often the case in first-person narratives. At no point did I ever really get a feeling of regret for her actions; if I was her, then I would probably have some.

The moral of the book - that suffering does not ennoble - is spelt out in the first few pages, and her description of the lives of Uncle Sándor and her parents more than fulfils this message. However, it was not a moral that I really felt needed expanding on. Indeed, a batter one may be that 'suffering does not excuse'. Uncle Sándor excuses his behaviour by saying the real crimes were his experiences during the war. This makes a powerful point about the way people can belittle the suffering of others - and indeed inflict suffering on on others - just because they too have suffered.

Even the descriptions of the clothes surprised me. They were very unobtrusive, and were used as a way of describing Vivien's ascent from child to woman, and of her breaking out from the cloistered, sterile environment of her parent's house. There were no half-page descriptions of clothes; rather, the descriptions were light, airy and well placed.

One disappointment for me, though, was that the protagonist is a writer. I have read several novels recently where the main protagonist has either been a journalist, a writer or an author, and it is getting very clichéd. Yes, there is the old advice about writing about what you know, but there should be an exception for writers writing about writing. It's been done to death. There are plenty more occupations out there that have not been covered in so much depth, and authors are meant to have an imagination. Use it!

However, the fact that she is a writer is hardly central to the plot, so it is not a major negative against this book. What is more disappointing is the pace by which many events rush by Vivien; true, she is looking back over her life, but the whole section where her first husband dies could have been cut out (again, it is almost clichéd to have a spouse die on the honeymoon). Instead, I would have liked her to have gone into more detail about Uncle Sándor, and his relationship with her family.

Despite this, it was a superb book that I could hardly put down. I would give this book 4.5 out of 5. Very recommended.

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