A tale of the many stories under the surface
Vivien Kovacs is an educated young woman who grew up in Benson Court with her two refugee parents; escapees from Hungary prior to WWII. Completely oblivious to most of the world around her, Vivien led a sheltered life but was forever curious. Most of her curiosity is centered around her family, which she knows very little about and the uncle she once caught a glimpse of as a child, but whose name is forbidden in her household. “Until I was 10 I was completely unaware that I had a relative.”
While the story centres around Vivien, the web created by Linda Grant starts to spin off in various directions as the reader learns all about Vivien\’s uncle, Sandor Kovacs â€“ the King of Crime and perhaps the “face of evil”. A Slumlord and a pimp, Sandor\’s story is one that involves the perils of WWII and the hardships of being a refugee. Vivien hears this story from her uncle whilst posing as a stranger and faces an internal struggle as she attempts to work out what she really thinks of her uncle and, what she thinks of herself in turn.
Linda Grant has created a novel that tells many stories in one; the story of a young woman seeking to find herself, a recount of the atrocities of WWII, a story of two very different brothers – one reaching out and the other hiding away, and a time-piece – providing insight into life in London at the time of skin-heads, bombs, racism and fascism. Linda Grant has done all of this in under 300 pages as she darts between the present, the past and someone else\’s past, piecing together the lives of people who couldn\’t be more different but are somehow related and entwined in one way or another.
The Clothes on their Backs is an interesting read that paints a picture of a time, a place and some very strong personalities. Grant\’s use of strong vocabulary for Vivien\’s narration is juxtaposed with the broken English of Sandor Kovacs and the uneducated speech of his black, strong-willed girlfriend, Eunice. This makes for a rich and rounded story of the fights against stereotypes, racism, fascism and narrow-mindedness, and the overcoming of heartbreak, loss, physical pain and fear.
The Clothes on their Backs, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a well written, thought-provoking story of new beginnings.
Available now: Hachette RRP$22.99