Edition: Virago, 2008
The 2008 Booker Prize short list has once again proved dull, to the point that this, the fourth I have started, is the only one I have so far bothered to finish. As well as being an enjoyable book from the short list, it also falls into another small category, Booker-short-listed-novel-not-tapping-into-British-post-colonial-guilt. True, it does have immigrants as characters, but they're wartime Hungarian refugees, not from the former Empire at all.
Vivian Kovaks grows up in a central London flat, rented for a song by her parents who originally offered it as charity to a pair of refugees,not expecting them to stay for forty years. She, as narrator of the novel, describes her parents as mice seeking to bring her up as a mouse. A sheltered childhood, followed by study at York University, then marriage.
But there's what might be called an "elephant in the room". Vivian's uncle is Sandor Kovaks, who is a successful businessman; the problem is that his wealth is based on being an exploitative slum landlord, also in London. The character is based on a real person, Peter Rachman, who I vaguely remember reading about (probably in a much later Sunday colour supplement magazine). Vivian's parents won't admit to the relationship, but Vivian remains fascinated by her one childhood memory of her uncle, from the only time he visited their flat. Sandor is imprisoned when she is about ten, but she later meets him again, and the second half of the novel is really about her discovering what the man behind the tabloid horror stories is really like.
The major difference between Sandor Kovaks and Peter Rachman (ignoring the fact that Kovaks is fictional while Rachman was real) is the existence of living, known family members. Rachman too came from Eastern Europe, and after the war was unable to trace his family, though he continued to try to do so until his death in 1962. (Grant also has Kovaks live a great deal longer.) Sandor's brother and his family are useful inventions to the author, as it makes it much easier to explore his character through the complexities of the relationships between him and them - relationships which still exist, even if they have disowned Sandor, even changing the spelling of their surname by deed poll so that strangers will not ask whether they are related.
The story is told in a way which is quite complicated chronologically. The first chapter and the last chapter are set much later than anything else (and are obviously intended to be from the time at which the narrator is telling the story). In the rest of the novel, Vivian apparently adds details from her childhood or illustrative incidents from later in her life as they occur to her, prompted by details in the main flow of the story. And the central part of the novel is taken up with Sandor's life story, which reaches back before the war, long before Vivian was born. But it all rings true, because it is carefully put together so that it mimics the way that people tell anecdotes in real life. Deliberately creating this kind of simplicity through underlying complexity is a skill I admire greatly.
The point of the novel, if there is one, is about the way that people's personalities are reflected in the small details of their lives such as the clothes they choose to wear. (It is exactly the sort of incidental information that creative writing courses suggest using to establish character, because these details are much more telling than a direct description of traits.) Clothe are important in the novel particularly Vivian's trawling of second hand shops to put together a wardrobe of old fashioned but stylish outfits: retro chic long before its time, and the description of how Sandor, forced to work in a slave gang of Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, is never able to change the clothes he was wearing when first conscripted, for months and months.
It's not a happy story; no novel in which the narrator's husband is killed on the second day of their honeymoon could be described as such. But it is a pleasure to read The Clothes On Their Backs, which is in summary an excellent novel, something out of the usual way of things. Both Vivan and Sandor are fascinating characters, and the view of life in thirties and forties Europe is one not often encountered in novels by English writers. My rating: 8/10.