The Clothes on Their Backs By Linda Grant
Early this fall I took a stack of new releases to the cottage for a week of reading. After reading – or partly reading - several that left me less than satisfied, reading The Clothes on Their Backs, the most recent novel by Linda Grant was a delight. Written with intelligence and thought, the story was interesting – it was more than a good read. This is the story of Vivien Kovacs and her family. Vivien was born in London in a block of flats, Benson Court, where her parents have lived since arriving in London before the Second World War.
It is an isolated little world of three.
Vivien’s father Ervin, works repairing jewelry and setting stones, a backroom occupation.
Like many Jews who left Europe fearing for their lives the Kovacs live as quiet a life as they possibly can, still fearing what they left behind.
They chose to be “mice-people…living quietly and modestly, of being industrious and obedient.”
Their name was Klein in Hungary, now Kovacs in England. Here their daughter was baptized and they have not practised their own religion in any way – however much it still defines them. Vivien was 12 before she wondered why “my parents did not cook a turkey at Christmas and give me a stocking to hang at the end of my bed and fill with presents or that there were no chocolate eggs at Easter.”
Vivien is a bright girl and goes off to university, coming home at the end with a very British husband. When the marriage quickly ends Vivien finds herself mourning, at home in Benson Court, with no occupation or interests.
It is a chance meeting with her only living relative, Sandor Kovacs, that brings her out into the world, at the same time as it takes her into the history of her family. Sandor Kovacs was a notorious “slum landlord” in his youth and spent many years in prison for his crime.
Now he wants to write his memoirs and Vivien is to be his secretary.
He tells her of his youth – and that of his brother – of their parents and grandparents and other relatives – all “up the chimney.”
Sandor himself survived the Nazi labour camps, returned to Budapest for several years, but it was not until his mother died in 1956 that Sandor left Hungary to find his brother in England.
Sandor soon discovers that his only living relative wants nothing to do with him.
By the time that Vivien is working for her Uncle Sandor it is the days of skinheads and the white supremacy organization, The National Front, in London.
The Jews again fear for their lives as they see the violence of racial hatred rising in their chosen home.
The story is being told by a 53-year-old Vivien Kovaks as she comes back to London to clear out the flat at Benson Court after the death of her father.
It is a chance meeting with her Uncle Sandor’s former lover that begins the story, and it continues as she reads through her uncle’s papers, long stored in a cupboard at Benson Court.
Linda Grant has won literary awards for her previous novels.
The Cast Iron Shore, published in 1996 won the David Higman First Novel Award, and her novel When I Lived in Modern Times won the Orange Prize - established in 1996 to honor novels of excellence, originality and accessibility by women writers - in June 2000. The Clothes on Their Backs is definitely of the same caliber.