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Great characters but the book lacks impact
on 16 December 2008
This is a novel about identity. It is the story of Vivien Kovaks, the daughter of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, as she struggles to find her place in British society in the late Seventies as well as understand her past, a past denied to her by her insular parents. By re-establishing contact with her Uncle Sandor, shunned by her Father for his work as a pimp and slum-landlord, Vivien establishes herself as the scribe for his oral autobiography and sets to work typing up the story of his life. In doing so she learns of her parents' past and therfore more about own. The book is her memories of these events from her middle age in a London shocked by the bombings of July 2006. The theme of clothing as a means of establishing or changing identity is not strong enough to provide the title and seems therefore an unusual theme to draw the title from.
Nor does the structure provide any real desire to read to the end. It is difficult to establish which if any of the vaguely interesting events were intended to fix the reader. Vivien, we know from the beginning is middle aged and sensible by the end, and yet she is the only character in which the reader is able to fully invest. The series of events which conclude the novel, therefore, are merely interesting and provide limited climax.
It can only be the detail with which each character is presented which won Grant her Booker nomination. Vivien the lost maybe-punk in vintage clothing with a useless English degree, her parents the timid Jewish immigrants self imprisoned in their flat on the Marylebone Road, Vivien's `play-thing' Claude, a skinny confused young man existing on the edge of sanity and of course Uncle Sandor a labour camp survivor turned pimp,businessman and cake enthisuast all appeal to the curious reader. All are written into life and interact realistically but there is little more to report.
Vivien herself tells Uncle Sandor, as she advises him on his method of dictating his own story; `if a book is to be publishable, it has to be more than chronology, it has to shed light on the human condition.' Grant achieves this in her portrait of the human need for identity and to a lesser extent the need for family, but I feel that an author with her ability to observe detail and write characters should have aimed for more. There are too many events in the book, rushed by in a page which are of more interest to those which provide the major scenes in the narrative. In short neither Vivien's nor her Uncle Sandor's stories are interesting or absorbing enough to provide Grant with the impact which her themes require.