The Clothes on Their Backs, By Linda Grant

Clothes maketh the person in a new novel about the immigrant experience in post-war London
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The Independent Culture

This novel starts and ends with the impulse purchase of a dress in ruby-red silk jersey from a shop in Marylebone's retail hinterland north of Oxford Street. That's an uncommon choice of fictional location, for the shop and for the mansion block where the narrator, Vivien Kovacs, was born – smartish, yet beyond the fast turnover of fashion; a transit zone where people should only perch for a few years in youth, yet where Vivien's parents hid out most of their adult lives. She's returned to the area in the near-present, in her mid-50s, widowed again, fading, for a last visit to the now-untenanted flat. The dress, the shop's manageress, and the secret that Vivien stashed at the back of her dead mother's wardrobe provoke the narrative.

Two narratives, actually. Vivien tells us her life-story from birth to 25. She's the daughter of Hungarian Jewish refugees. Cooped up with her jeweller father and crippled mother, their reclusion is disturbed only by a 1963 confrontation with her father's brother, Sandor, flaunting his tart and his diamonded watchstrap before their doormat. Vivien's father curses him away; she follows his later downfall, as a Rachman-like London slum landlord, eventually meeting him not quite by chance when she is 24, widowed for the first time days into her marriage. (Five melodramatic expirations, a murder and an abortion seem to be intended to thump a plot into this faux-memoir; plus National Front violence – could be true history, doesn't sound right.) Vivien also listens to and passes on Sandor's story: birth in a Jewish vintners' village; pre-war success as a Budapest pimp; survived the war, just, in a labour unit; sauntered west into entrepreneurship and/or criminality in 1956.

What holds as much of this together as does adhere is Grant's feeling for London's domestic spaces and public places. What Grant means to connect its layers and times, its public and private personae, are the clothes, from Vivien's childhood charity hand-me-downs, through youthful vintage finds and her underdrawn punk phase, to her last chance of grace through the red dress. And yet, except for a precise, terrible page on Sandor's wartime suit – disintegrating over five years on his beaten back, at last boiled free both of lice and shape – hardly a line about the garments interests, let alone convinces. Grant may have wanted to avoid chicklit's label and store name recitals, but her descriptions of the clothes throughout are curt and perfunctory. Specifying the textile, denoting a jacket as double-breasted, even noticing three buttons at the wrist of a glove won't do it, especially when this bare inventory is then used as an excuse for Sweeping Authorial Sartorial Statements, as in "a new dress changes everything". A dress? When was a dress last the serious garment of transformation? Didn't believe a word of it.