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The Clothes on their Backs - Book of the Month

by Linda Grant

Vivien’s parents were Jewish-Hungarian immigrants who sought refuge in London in 1938 and found it (aided by the WRVS) in Benson Court, a mansion block on the Marylebone Road. From here, in their 60 years in residence, they hardly left the sanctuary of their own living-room where they closed the door and came out as little as possible. This was their bolt-hole, their safe haven, their retreat. Sensitive, bookish, Vivien was brought up there surrounded by a motley crew of neighbours, a shifting population made up of bohemians and other eccentrics that came and went, only vaguely identifiable by muffled sounds from behind closed doors.

Her parents never told Vivien anything about her past, evading her questions, perplexed as to why she, a young girl in the safety of London with enough to eat, with clothes on her back (WRVS hand-me-downs) should want to know such things: “Don’t ask questions. No one ever had a quiet life by asking questions.” The only relative that Vivien knows about is Uncle Sandor who she remembers appeared at the door one day in 1963 - and had it shut in his face. She recalls, “A man in an electric blue mohair suit, black hand-stitched suede shoes, his wrist flashing with a fancy watch attached to a diamond bracelet.” So she had an uncle, and an obviously wealthy one, but why did her father so vehemently deny him?

Vivien goes to university, a shy, quiet girl concealed behind the second-hand clothes (today we’d say “vintage”) that she wore. She falls in love, gets married, but tragically ends up living once again with her parents. She once more takes up her semi-hermetic existence in Benson Court but then a chance meeting with Sandor in the park allows her into his world and a way into her past.

THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS was deservedly shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. It is a clever, complex book that deals poignantly with a family’s history through the eyes of a woman seeking her identity and finding more than she bargained for.

Read our interview with Linda Grant.

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