The Clothes on Their Backs

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I had been looking forward to reading this Man Booker Prize nominated book for quite some time, and just finished reading it this week-end.  I was expecting it to be somewhat different than it turned out, as the advance blurb had promised a story on how the clothes we wear define us all, and on that point, I don’t feel it delivered at all.

However, it did deliver on its promise of ” a story about concealed pasts, dark subjects, dark places and stark choices…”

In a red brick mansion block off the Marylebone Road, Vivien, a sensitive, bookish girl grows up sealed off from both past and present by her timid refugee parents. Her parents, Hungarian Jews who emigrated to London before the second world war and never even told their daughter they were Jewish – are people who believe in keeping their heads down.

Through Vivien we discover the colourful characters at Benson Court, who play a part in the development of this at first, timid and unworldly young woman. Then, one morning, a glamorous older man appears, dressed in a mohair suit, with a diamond watch on his wrist and a girl in a leopard-skin hat on his arm. He is her Uncle Sándor but why, is he so violently unwelcome in her parents’ home? On the face of it, there’s a simple enough explanation for his expulsion from familial life. Sándor is a slum landlord (loosely based on Peter Rachman), 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?”

When grown up,Vivien seeks out her uncle, several years after his imprisonment has ended, to try to understand something of this loud, flamboyant figure, so entirely unlike her father, so disturbingly filled with impulses she recognises in herself.

This is a story about finding your identity. Vivien struggles to find her place in British society in the late Seventies as well as understand her past, a past denied to her by her parents. Although, I found I didn’t like the main character of Vivien, nor could I empathize with her,  the author does successfully bring to life character, time and place.  This lack of feeling for the main character meant I never really engaged with the character and thematically I am not sure this novel works. I was left with the overall impression that the themes never really came together to make a consistent whole.  However, the quality of the writing, did make me stick with it to end, and the snapshot of time and place held my interest, even if the story ultimately left me cold.

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