I bought this book because the cover was so pretty…. and then read it on a Kindle. That is to say, I picked it up at Barnes and Noble, added it to the pile of eight books I was going to buy, thought, “I’m not carrying those home, it’s time for a Kindle.” And went home and ordered the gadget. Then, finally downloaded five of the eight books onto it.
This was possibly unfair, especially since it was a material quality of The Clothes on Their Backs that had drawn my hand to it in the first place. And in the event, I had to go back and reread the prologue because the Kindle was a little bit disconcerting. It felt at first as if this was one of those books where the narrator of the frame is eclipsed by the far-more-vivid characters in the main section of the novel.
This is true, but intentional, because the story involves the summer of 1977 when Vivien Kovacs’ life is blown open. The only child of a pair of Hungarian Jewish refugees to London, she has grown up in at atmosphere of control and silence about the past. Bookish and naive, a bundle of emotions seeking an outlet, she scrapes acquaintance with her father’s ex-con brother Sandor, and from there the story takes off.
The characters are wonderful: Sandor is one of those greedy, larger-than-life figures who dominate any space they enter, including your head. His dignified Jamaican fiancee Eunice and Vivien’s rough-trade boyfriend round out the cast, along with London itself. There’s a wonderful black-and-white scene, all moonlight and shadows, set on a Thames dredger in the middle of the night, and another set-piece involving sex in a deserted Tube train at the Golders Green depot.
And then, of course, there are the clothes. Vivien uses her wardrobe to define herself, to define others, but above all, to work out who she is. “The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in….We are forever turning into someone else, and should never forget that someone else is always looking.”
Grant is wonderful on uncle Sandor’s gangster suits, Eunice’s disciplined, impeccable outfits, and the plumage of the dance hall where Sandor and Eunice take Vivien — two-tone shoes and gaudy suits, tight satin dresses and cruel high-heeled snakeskin sandals that make Vivien’s feet bleed. That, children, is the cost of emotional life. Oh, and here’s some wonderful advice from a tango teacher: “All ways of thinking pale into insignificance if you just take big steps and leave the thinking to me.”
It’s one way to grow up; uncomfortable, but it makes for good reading.