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[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]