Athena Kennedy's Reviews > The Clothes on Their Backs

The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant
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Jun 09, 14

bookshelves: booker-prize-nominated
Read from October 15 to 16, 2011

I absolutely loved this book, in large part because I was able to identify with the main character and see echoes of my family's history in the characters. I felt that I understood their emotional responses and motives for their actions. However, even though I really connected with the story, I can see why it didn't ultimately win the 2008 Booker (being beat out by The White Tiger)

Vivien is the only child of Ervin and Berta Kovaks, Hungarian Jews who moved to London in the late 1930s as the extreme persecution was beginning. Once in London, Ervin chooses to keep his head down and assimilate - never going out, never making friends, never traveling - and as a result, Vivien grows up with almost no understanding of the country her parents came from, their religion, culture, language, or history. This set up resonated with me as a great-granddaughter of Eastern European immigrants to America, in a family that until very recently did not even know their former religion, language, or even the name of the village they came from. Perhaps my great-grandparents' attitudes were similar to Ervin Kovaks'.

But Vivien has an uncle Sandor, who came to London years after her parents did, and lived through the horrors of the labor camps during World War Two. Sandor and Ervin do not get along, and are in many ways opposite takes on life as an immigrant - one fading into a half-life to avoid detection and the other flamboyantly living life, and disregarding authority. Following a personal tragedy, Vivien defies her father and forges a relationship with her uncle, and in the process learns about her family history and her father's past. Throughout Vivien's story is a theme of the power of clothes: the transforming power of a new dress, the memories a pair of shoes can elicit, the class status associated with various types of clothes. And although this theme is pervasive throughout the novel, it never becomes overbearing or trite.

And as much as I connected with the story, I agree that it doesn't have the depth and fantastic language that the White Tiger had, and I'm sure not everyone connected with it as I did. So I'll concede this one to the Booker committee.
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