Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Reading group: The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant

Clothes and the things they represent - social and psychological - are of abiding interest to Ann, a textile conservator - as they are indeed to me: I was very pleased when she suggested this book, the story of narrator Vivien Kovaks, the London-born daughter of Hungarian Jewish refugees, and her relationship in adulthood with the uncle from whom her parents are estranged, a character based on the notorious fifties slum landlord, Rachman.

However, introducing the book, Ann said that she felt the clothes theme was disappointingly undeveloped. Clothes did constitute a fair element of the book - mainly of the story of Vivien who, learning nothing from her silent and hermetic parents about their background, must seek an identity for herself, which she does partly via clothes. However, Ann said, the idea seemed to lie on the surface, and wasn't linked with that lost background in any resonant way that she could see, as promised by the quite brilliant title. Most people in the group didn't particularly care about this - most weren't that bothered about clothes in the first place - and everyone resoundingly agreed that the story of Uncle Sandor which is slowly revealed to Vivien is engrossing.

Well, everyone had enjoyed the book and had found it a great read, but our group has got so critical nowadays that I'm afraid to say it didn't come out of our discussion in any way unscathed. Ann found a dissonance between the story of Vivien growing up and the later episodes: the first seemed felt but the latter rather made up, at which others agreed and listed all the things they had found 'made up' or unconvincing: Clare said that though we were told that Vivien was heartbroken at the loss of her young husband, there was no sense of her grief. And what was all that about him dying, everyone wanted to know? What was the point of not even revealing straight away how he had died, and indeed giving the wrong impression by talking instead about (other) examples of sudden accidental deaths? John said he felt that what was going on here was that things weren't properly imagined; he felt the same sort of confusion over Vivien's wedding: initially, he got the impression that her wedding had been a small one (because it was done through the focus of Vivien's parents) and only later is it revealed that it was a society wedding. Others agreed. The way Vivien and Sandor met was far too coincidental, they said, and they didn't find it believable that Vivien should invite her unknowing parents to the birthday party Sandor holds for her. Ann said that she wasn't convinced by the time shift of Sandor's slum landlordism to the sixties; Rachman was very much of the fifties, and the excuse that Sandor had come to England later didn't hold water because, as even the book says, it was immediately after the war that there were killings to be made in buying up cheap property.

John wanted to know what the book was supposed to be saying: was it meant to say that people like Rachman were OK really, or something? I said that I thought the point was to show that evil doers can't be dismissed as 'pure evil' (as indeed the mother of abducted Sharon Matthews had been described the very day of our discussion), 'the face of evil', as both Rachman and Sandor were described by the press; that what's far more frightening is that the people who conduct evil deeds are on the contrary human. But people said they didn't find the book portrayed this convincingly, Vivien didn't seem to have much of a convincing dilemma over this, and Clare compared the book unfavourably with Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, which we've also discussed.

I said, But didn't you find the prose engaging and witty? and everyone agreed that yes, they had, and then Jenny said, My god, what's wrong with us, I said I liked this book! And then she said, Well, I still do anyway, and everyone agreed. Go figure.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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