Linda Grant (2008) The Clothes on Their Backs.
I was a bit concerned that The Clothes on Their Backs was going to be an Anita Brookner pastiche, and in places it does seem to cast a knowingly Brookner-ish eye on its narrative. Perhaps I'm just overly attuned to any sentence with 'a start [sc. in life]' in it. It has the makings of pure Brookner in its protagonist, the university-educated only child of migrant Hungarian Jews brought up as an outsider in a lonely block of flats in the West End of London in the 1960s/70s: "My parents had brought me up to be a mouse".
The Clothes on Their Backs never achieves the sense of complete, suffocating claustrophobia which marks out the typical Brookner (that isn't a criticism!), but is instead a novel of great dynamism and, in places, brutality. What happens when you seek out revelation rather than closet yourself away from the world?
I have not forgotten our summer together, when I learned the only truth that matters: that suffering does not ennoble and that survivors survive because of their strength or cunning or luck, not their goodness, and certainly not their innocence.
Grant establishes historical footings for her protagonist, Vivien Kovaks aka Kovacs, with the most significant events in her life occurring around her 25th birthday in 1977. Vivien is sexually liberated but naïve about life. She is curious about her parents' lives before they came to London in 1938, since they refuse to speak about those years, and she possesses a near-fatal curiosity about her Uncle Sándor, the slum landlord who brought shame on the family by his jailing in the 1960s.
Unemployed, recently tragically widowed, and post-traumatically stressed (her glass-biting is a lovely detail), Vivien makes contact with her uncle and attempts to uncover her family's past. Acting as her uncle's amanuensis, Vivien grows in political awareness as she discovers the suppressed history of her Jewish family's lives and deaths against a background of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
The trappings of the various historical periods (1920s/30s Hungary; 1950s/60s/70s London) are believable and everything links up beautifully (as only a novel can do) - the rise of Hungarian fascism with that of the neo-fascist National Front; the deprivations and fears faced by Jewish migrants of the 1930s with that of Caribbean migrants of the 1950s/60s.
And then there are the clothes... I came to this book as though to the third panel of a triptych, having read both Grant's The Thoughtful Dresser (2009) and her 'thoughtful' blog on clothing (the thoughtful dresser). The clothes set the scenes. They also have their messages spelled out for us (sometimes heavily): "My clothes acted as a kind of carapace, an armour with which I protected my inner, soft body." So, Vivien's political awakening is mirrored in her dress, as she moves from a malleable girl in "floating scarves and silver bangles" to harder-edged punk ("our jewellery was safety pins").
"My Mickey's got his best wig on. It was made special for him. Beautiful shade of chestnut, and very natural looking, don't you think?""But you can still tell it's a wig," I said."Well obviously. If you're going to spend all that money, you want something to show for it."
Grant captures wonderfully the - complicated - nostalgia we feel for the foolish carelessness of youth as we grow older. She is also good on reminding us how important it is to remember; not to become careless with our memories, even when it may be only with regard to what some (not Grant, obviously) regard as the trivialities of dress. This can become clichéd, of course, and this book does on occasion push the clichés:
You realise that the way you treat a woman is the way your little girl will be treated by men in her own life. It can strike you like a plank of wood around the head, this thought. You know, I was never unkind to women, just careless.
I read this book in one sitting - it is very good indeed.
"It's true not nice things happened to him," my father said. "Still, they could have made him a better person, and they didn't. He never changed."
If you liked this... Grant's The Thoughtful Dresser (non-fiction) is a must read; or, of course, some Anita Brookner (my favourites are Hotel du Lac, A Start in Life and Fraud). I am going to read Grant's Orange Prize winning When I Lived in Modern Times.