• Current Reads

      Life after Life Jill McCorkle
      This Is Your Captain Speaking Jon Methven
      The Starboard Sea Amber Dermont
      Snark David Denby
      Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
  • Popular Tags

  • Recent Reflections

  • Categories

  • Moleskine’s All-Time Favorites

  • Echoes

    The HKIA brings Hong… on [788] Island and Peninsula 島與半…
    Adamos on The Master and Margarita:…
    sumithra MAE on D.H. Lawrence’s Why the…
    To Kill a Mockingbir… on [35] To Kill A Mockingbird…
    Deanna Friel on [841] The Price of Salt (Carol…
    Minnie on [367] The Rouge of the North 怨…
  • Reminiscences

  • Blog Stats

    • 1,082,210 hits
  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,710 other followers

[181] The Clothes on Their Backs – Linda Grant

clothesbacks2“My parents had brought me up to be a mouse. Out of gratitude to England which gave them refuge, they chose to be mice-people and this condition of mousehood, of not saying much (to outsiders or even each other), of living quietly and modestly, of being industrious and obedient, was what they hope for for me, too. And whatever Uncle Sandor was, he was no mouse.” [54]

“Until I was 10 I was completely unaware that I had a relative.” This is not the opening line of the novel. It doesn’t appear until the start of the third chapter, but it is where the novel truly begins. The narrator is Vivien Kovaks, the relative is her uncle Sándor.

Ervin and Berta Kovaks arrived London from Budapest in 1938. They left Hungary to flee from the Jews persecution. The reclusive refugees who hide behind the door are timidly grateful for any kindness shown to them. Their daughter, Vivien, is a sensitive and bookish girl who grows up sealed off from both past and present by her socially aloof parents. The arrival of a man who dresses impeccably in a mohair suit with a diamond watch on his wrist pierces the long period of calm in her parents’ uneventful lives. The man, Sándor Kovaks, is the uncle from whom Ervin and Berta strives to protect their daughter.

Curious of her family’s past and also suspicious of her parents’ tight-lipped silence, against her father’s wishes, Vivien sets out to forge a relationship with her estranged uncle, a man reviled and imprisoned, whose treatment of his tenants prompts one newspaper to caption a photograph of him with the words: “Is this the face of evil?” But that he constantly challenges her notions of morality makes her feel otherwise. The gripping narrative that unfolds Sándor Kovaks’ story is quintessential of the imperil of hypocrisy: no man is all good or all bad, the same notion that division of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful to measure morality as raised in The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. As much as Vivien tries to hold on to her disgust at Sándor’s choices, she is convinced that life itself can be so opaque that it is sometimes impossible to analyze beyond the surface. Sándor’s choices muddle her notions to define immorality. Her interactions with her uncle turn out to be the best part of the novel.

While all that the media and her father say about her uncle is true—cheap thug, pimp, racist, bloodsucker and libertine, Sándor is owed a fair judgment on his character from the perspective of the line between selfishness and self-preservation. The more Sándor comes into life and color, the more shadowy her parents’ quiet inheritance has become. The more her uncle elaborates on his choices dictated by survival, the less defined the line between good and bad. The novel shines in characterizing Vivien’s uncertain scope in life, and her frustrations and the incredible loss in her early marriage. Disappointingly, the other strand (as suggested by the title) that is never fully realized is the one around clothing, which gives the title of the book one of its two meanings; at various points we are told how the clothes we wear define us and change us – a fascinating idea, but one which is not fully woven into the narrative. The book reminds us that the way we acquire of our sense of elf from what gets reflected back to us, either in the mirror or in our relationships with others.

“The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in. We are all trapped with these thick claves or pendulous breasts, our sunken chests, our dropping jowls. A million imperfections mar us…So the most you can do is put on a new dress, a different tie. We are forever turning into someone else, and should never forget that someone else is always looking.” [288]

293 pp [Read/Skim/Toss]

21 Responses

  1. I love this perspective on the importance of packaging. Sometimes I wonder if changing who we are really is as simple as changing our clothes.

    Hmm, the ultimate manifestation of facadism, perhaps?

  2. Great review, Matt! When White Tiger won the Booker Price, I checked online all the other short-listed books. The reviews for this book were split in the middle and in fact got a lower rating than Whiter Tiger did. Now that I have compared your reviews you seem to acclaim this novel even higher. I should check this out.

  3. I’ve heard so many things about this book.. it’s also on my reading list this year.. thanks for the review!

  4. I meant.. so many ‘good’ things.

  5. Wow! Great review. Sounds like a must read.

  6. Great to read your take on it. I agree with your point about dropping that theme of clothing, it starts out strong but then the notion of exteriors shifts to other kinds of exteriors, I guess – the Uncle’s ugliness and his girlfriend’s skin color…

  7. I’ve been thinking about how you can get to know someone virtually without the aspect of physical appearance. As a person who lives quite a bit in her head, I’m attracted to being able to control how others “see” me. But in real life, superficial things like how we dress are the message we send.

  8. This sounds really good. Thank you for a great review Matt. I don’t think I’d really heard anything about this book before.

  9. Thanks for the review; I think I”ll be adding this to my to-read list 😀

  10. Carmi:
    At least in the worldly sense we are changing the selves. When I’m walking through the Castro (the gay neighborhood), I always ask myself why certain men have to bear their limbs and torsos even when it’s freezing outside. They’re certainly making a statement.

  11. John:
    Critics don’t seem to esteem this book, nor do the customers on Amazon. But this book has done pretty well in my local bookstores. You should read it. 🙂

  12. claire:
    I hope you’ll get to it because I want to hear what your thought is. The overall impression of the writing and the story more than compensate the shortcoming I have discussed in the review. 🙂

  13. Beth F:
    I highly recommend this book, which is the best read so far in this month. 🙂

  14. ted:
    First of all thank you for recommending the book to me. Now I’m off to look for The Good Doctor, the other Man Booker book that you recommended. I’ve been waiting for Linda Grant to unfold and fully develop that theme of clothing because Eunice is in the clothing business. I felt the theme simmering throughout the text but too bad it’s didn’t brought upon a grand conclusion.

  15. Jeanne:
    The way we dress and the manner we present ourselves usually give the first impression, which could weugh heavily in our relationship and career. But you’ll never get to know a person unless you have “seen” (not literally) beyond the surface of physical appearance.

  16. Iliana:
    Yes, consider that it was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, media coverage of the book was relatively meager. Recently there has been such a hype on The White Tiger. My review of the book has been very popular for the last two weeks. I highly recommend The Clothes on Their Backs and am looking into her other works. 🙂

  17. tuesday:
    Yes, indeed, another good book to be included in your grand reading plan for the year. 🙂

  18. […] about the same thing when I was reading some of the new books that would inspire a motion picture. The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, and Little Bee by Chris Cleave would […]

  19. […] the “new old author” category Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs is the front runner. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2008, of which The White Tiger […]

  20. […] made an effort to read through the 2008 shortlist: The White Tiger, The Secret Scripture, and The Clothes on Their Backs. Sea of Poppies, A Fraction of the Whole, and The Northern Clemency are sitting on my shelf waiting […]

  21. […] for New Author Discovered: The Clothes on Their Backs Linda Grant Chess Game Stefan Zweig Exiles in America Christopher Bram (total 4 read this year) The […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: