Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Book Review: The Clothes On Their Backs - Linda Grant

Synopsis - Vivien spends a quiet childhood encapsulated in the present, sealed off from the past by her timid refugee parents.  She's ten before she finds out that she has a relative: to the horror of her father, her glamorous, dangerous uncle appears at their door, dressed in a purple mohair suit with his leopard-print-clad mistress upon his arm.  But why is Uncle Sandor so violently unwelcome in her parents' home?

Review - I found this story very interesting set in London in the 1970's.  The book opens in the present day when Vivien has returned to London and 'accidentally' re-acquaints with her Uncle's fiancée.  The author takes us back to Vivien's childhood in Benson Court.  Her Jewish parents have fled from Hungary to London and live a quiet, cosy existence keeping the past and the bad outside their door.  Her father Ervin, works in the jewellery quarter, Hatton Garden and her mother Berta, has a limp and carries a walking stick, mainly staying indoors keeping house.  They are 'plain' people in the sense of living simply, wearing plain clothes and blending in with the furniture.  As Vivien grows older, she becomes aware of the world around her, meeting the other residents in Benson Court who seduce and introduce her to colour and clothes.  Eventually, Vivien goes to University, marries and when out of work, comes across her Uncle Sandor in the park.  Although they both recognise each other, neither admit this to the other and 'Miranda' works for her Uncle, writing his memoir aided by a reel to reel tape recorder.

This is a story about relationships and focusses very much on the two brothers.  The Uncle is purported to be bad news.  His younger brother hates him for his past crimes and cannot forgive or forget.  Uncle Sandor is a man full of life, yes, he takes advantage to better himself and he is a terrible landlord amongst other things.  He has had a tough life, deciding to stay in Hungary he has survived the war, been imprisoned for crimes in London.  However, we realise that it is Ervin who is mean-spirited and has lived his life as a coiled spring.  The reader realises that Ervin wants to protect his daughter from men such as his brother.  The reader can look at Vivien as she develops and changes, as she realises how her parents lived their lives, and how she paves her own way through life as life comes to her, rather than having any plan or dream.  4*
ISBN 978-1-84408-542-2

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