The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant was short listed for the Man Booker in 2008. Three years ago. 2008. Yeah, I'm not quite up to date on my reading. This excellent novel had been allowed to fall into the Read It Or Remove It nether world that surrounds my home. What feckless behavior on my part.
An impulsive decision to revisit a former place of employment before it goes out of business affords Vivien Kovaks the chance to examine a time in her youth that set the stage for the rest of her life. As the daughter of immigrants in some ways Vivien's life has been a series of closings. Her parents, Ervin and Berta, came to England from Hungary in 1938. Upon arriving one of the things they closed the door on was their Jewishness. They showed their gratitude to their new homeland for taking them in by living a barely breathing kind of life. They work, they sit at home and they go to bed. They live without being noticed. When Vivien is born they have her baptized and are thrilled to have the record of the baptism as proof of their belonging, their safety. They will assimilate and homogenize at any cost.
In 1963, at age ten, Vivien finds out about an Uncle she never knew she had. To a child's eyes Uncle Sandor is a glamor puss relative. The family views Sandor as a black sheep and worse but he is also seductive in his zest for life. When Sandor's behavior threatens their quiet life, Ervin bans Sandor from their home. Shortly thereafter Sandor is arrested. During his trial the press headlines him as "The King of Crime" and "The Face of Evil". He is a slum lord and an unrepentant one at that. Sandor's life prior to coming to England was a brutal, forced labor camp existence so as bad as he treats others in his mind they still have it better than he did.
When Uncle Sandor is released from prison Vivien visits him on the sly. Her behavior thrills her and she is more and more powerfully drawn to Sandor's daring. At first Vivien sees her parents joyless, narrow existence and Sandor's excesses as her only lifestyle choices. In a way Sandor's behavior offers Vivien justification for the excesses she experiments with as a young woman. She is taking her first steps outside of her parents timid existence. She gets a job in a dress shop and through it exposure to a wider variety of people and more freedom than she has known thus far in her life. When Sandor offers to hire Vivien to help him write his memoirs she agrees. Vivien sees Sandor's reminiscences as a chance to get the answers to her questions about her family's past that her parents are too reticent to give.
In Linda Grant's hands Vivien's scrutiny of her younger self makes for a fascinating novel. Vivien's constant search for an interesting past, present and future and her own identity is a journey we all make but Grant makes that commonality anything but commonplace. Vivien's emergence from a cloistered life into the morally questionable but enticingly alive world of Uncle Sandor leave her open for tragic heartbreak and abuse. Ping-ponging between the extremes of her family also help her to discover her own strength, voice and moral compass. Grant takes us there and back again with expressive, commanding writing. Even better she lets us recognize for ourselves the power in Vivien's odyssey toward adulthood rather that hit us over the head with it. I was impressed.
P.S. The cover? The cover has that crazy, got to have it voodoo magic that certain images create for me. In this case it's the mannequin. Doesn't matter if it's clothed or naked, a mannequin or a dressmaker's dummy, there is something about a human form that can wear clothes but isn't a human that is a show stopper. Some clothing items have that same appeal. Shoes without feet in them (but never, ever, ever feet with no shoes on), gloves and dresses come to mind.