Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs is a wonderful study of a family of Jewish Hungarian immigrants, told from the perspective of Vivien. This inquisitive, bookish girl is the daughter of Ervin and Berta (a pair of timid, cardigan-wearing mice) and the niece of Sándor Kovaks, flamboyant pimp and infamous slum landlord (not to be confused with the real-life Sándor Kovács, a seemingly innocuous academic).
When we meet Vivien she is a middle-aged woman with grown-up daughters whose husband has just died, as has Ervin (Berta has predeceased him). As she clears out her parents West London flat, which was her childhood home, the ghosts of her past are all around her, prompting her to tell us the story of her younger years, which is full of sadness, punctuated by death and quietly, unostentatiously riveting.
Grant’s account of Vivien’s childhood is so atmospheric you almost feel you could reach out and touch the walls of her bedroom. You can hear the stillness in the air, the loneliness of having no one but her parents who jump every time there is a knock at the door. Their secrets are stacked up around them like so many dusty boxes and Berta’s opaque evasiveness is particularly well-written. She is a master at deflecting her daughter’s curious questions, and perhaps Vivien would never have found out anything about her family’s past were it not for a visit by her uncle when she was a child.
Sándor Kovacs, about whom so much has been written in the press, looms large in Vivien’s memory: the man who arrived at her quiet, colourless home in a bright blue suit with a gold bar of Toblerone for her. On his arm was a teenage West Indian girl in a leopard-print hat. Sándor is the man who so upset and enraged the normally timid Ervin that he sent him packing from the doorstep with curses and screams, his Toblerone refused.
When Vivien she seeks Sándor out again as an adult, at a time when she is struggling painfully to make her way in the world after a string of unfortunate tragedies, it is because she is curious about the wall of terrified silence erected around him by Ervin and guarded faithfully by Berta. When she finds him, it cracks open a whole world of the past she knows nothing about.
Though Ervin and the newspapers she reads in the library, who describe her uncle as ‘the face of evil’, have nothing good to say about Sándor, what Vivien finds is more complicated than a monster. Sándor is a fascinating character – showy, haunted, gregarious, tough and surprisingly loyal – a person as vibrant and brash as his brother is timid and tightly wound. Indeed, it is this dichotomy between the brothers, and their relationship (or lack thereof), that is one of the most interesting features in the book. Sándor is lovable in ways that Ervin is not, and Ervin is noble in ways that Sándor disdains. Neither is wholly good or wholly bad. There is no good or evil here, unless you want to make that judgement for yourself. Grant isn’t interested in giving you characters that can be summed up in newspaper headlines, and her book is the richer for it.
Viv Groskop in her Guardian review says that the book ‘is so artfully constructed that you barely feel you’re reading it at all’, and that is exactly my view. I felt like I was breathing Viven, like Sándor was a visceral experience; The Clothes on Their Backs feels more like flesh and blood than paper and ink.
I have read a lot of books in my time and consequently I forget a lot of them, even excellent ones. New plots and new characters push out the old ones – but some remain wedged in years after I’ve read them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sándor, Vivien, Eunice, Berta and Ervin were among them a decade from now.
In my view, the best books are those that can make you mourn people you’ve never met and have you nostalgic for places you’ve never been. Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs is a brilliant example of this phenomenon, and if you’re looking for a book to engross you completely and effortlessly then I highly recommend it.