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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars GOOD WELL WRITTEN NOVEL
I was suprised to see so much criticism of this book. I found the book moving, and gave a slant on 'the face of evil'. I thought that the characterisation of Vivien created lots of empathy, and her somewhat nilhilistic attitude towards life was quite understandable.
I found the ending satisfactory, and I am not too sure how it could have been ended,apart from the...
Published on 1 Feb 2011 by bibliophile

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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great characters but the book lacks impact
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...
Published on 16 Dec 2008 by Howard Green


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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great characters but the book lacks impact, 16 Dec 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.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars GOOD WELL WRITTEN NOVEL, 1 Feb 2011
This review is from: The Clothes On Their Backs (Paperback)
I was suprised to see so much criticism of this book. I found the book moving, and gave a slant on 'the face of evil'. I thought that the characterisation of Vivien created lots of empathy, and her somewhat nilhilistic attitude towards life was quite understandable.
I found the ending satisfactory, and I am not too sure how it could have been ended,apart from the concept of everyone lived happily ever after, and all the members of the family were reconciled to each other. There seemed strong comparisons between Sandor and Rachmann, though I was disappointed that the biography of Rachmann is no longer available, as I felt that this would have made interesting reading.
I have not read anything written by Linda Grant before, but I have just ordered 'We have never had it so good'as the symnopsis looks rather good.
What reviews do tell you is that everyone reads messages differently in a book. I great;ly enjoyed this novel, and its 1970's slant social history, and what live was like living in central London,and thinking about it there are not many novels that write from that standpoint. Would recommend this book as a good read.
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33 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'Each generation has to'etc, 14 April 2008
A timely reminder of how a society is re-invented and inhabited (rather like clothes) by its immigrants. Also a revealing study of the alienation the children of those immigrants can evolve into should their parents choose to stop time as a way of integrating. Vivien, the protagonist, is the victim and a co-conspirator in the revealing of a family secret. The process by which this revelation is finally made is fascinating: Linda Grant has constructed a narrative as compelling and disturbing as that of her memoir 'Remind me who I am, again'.

Apart from feeling that the book was too short: I would have liked to know more about Vivien's second marriage; Vivien's relationship with her uncle's lover in the present day could have been made more of; I was left with that lovely feeling of having read yet another excellent book by a living novelist,and that there would be even more to look forward to. My advice is to stay in and stretch it over a weekend. Much food for thought.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Encounters with a Great Storyteller, 5 Sep 2011
By 
Kate Hopkins (London) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Clothes On Their Backs (Paperback)
The nature of evil has always fascinated Linda Grant. Here, she takes a character (loosely based on the infamous Peter Rachman, the slum landlord of Notting Hill, though Grant's Sandor Kovacs is Hungarian rather than Polish) and explores whether he is really the 'face of evil' as the papers claim when he is imprisoned for his bad work as a landlord. To our surprise we find that Kovacs may have behaved appallingly to his tenants, but that in many ways he is a likeable man, and a great storyteller. Grant splits the narration of her novel between Kovacs's niece Vivian, who has grown up sheltered from the world by her over-protectice parents and told nothing of the family's history, and who is looking for new meaning in her life after being tragically widowed, and Kovacs himself, who after a chance encounter with Vivian decides that he will tell her the story of his life. The sections of the book where Sandor tells Vivian about his childhood in rural Hungary and his life as a roguish young man in Budapest are particularly enjoyable. Whatever evil Sandor may have done in his life, he's certainly a great entertainer. The story of Vivian's relationship with her uncle, with both pretending they don't know who the other is, is also very engrossing.And as one might expect from the title, clothes play a large part in the tale (though they're not as vital a part of the main plot as I think Grant may have originally intended). Grant certainly describes clothes beautifully!

I would give this novel four stars rather than five largely because I didn't quite believe in one of the subplots (Vivan's lethargic affair with the unpleasant and rather dull Claude, one of Sandor's tenants) and because as the novel progressed Vivian became slightly less interesting (almost as though Sandor's vitality caused her to become a more shadowy figure). I would have also liked the book to be a tiny bit longer so that I could have learnt more about Vivian's life after Sandor's death, and how the death affected her. But these are small quibbles: this book is certainly recommended reading for anyone interested in the Jews of Hungary, in life in London in the 1960s and in the question of the nature of evil: a much more complex question than many of us think.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well-drawn characters in search of a story, 21 April 2009
This review is from: The Clothes On Their Backs (Paperback)
The book starts well as a snapshot of the lives of Jewish émigrés but then it flags and meanders not knowing where it really wants to go. I liked Vivian's family and was interested in Uncle Sandor (though the comparison with Peter Rachman was not strong enough for me - Rachman was still a more fascinating character), but I was not particularly interested in Vivian's tale. My interest was only fleetingly caught by the events in the book and frankly Vivian's attempt to pass herself off as someone else to her uncle was laughable - I did not really see the point of it.
Although I am interested in books about the immigrant experience, for me this was just a collection of reasonably well-drawn characters in search of a story.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Other people seem to like it., 3 May 2009
This review is from: The Clothes On Their Backs (Paperback)
This book has been extensively reviewed already, so I shall keep this brief(ish).

The good bits:
1) The book is well written. Grant isn't afraid of writing an interesting sentence.
2) I quite like the way she describes Claude's fish.

The bad bits:
1) The heroine is, frankly, a bit irritating.
2) The tone is rather knowing at times.
3) The novel relies on the idea that clothes transform us from 'the outside in'. Okay. So? Rather than to develop to a satisfying conclusion, the novel seems to shrug its shoulders and give up on the idea at the end.

This book has got a pretty high profile. Booker prize shortlist!? I have to say that I think there must be books out there more deserving of this kind of attention; I look forward to finding them.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Even 'monsters' have a human side, 24 May 2008
By 
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
It takes some time before the main plot of the book really gets into its stride. The story is told by Vivien, the daughter of Ervin and Bertha Kovacs, Jews who had fled to London from the antisemitism in pre-war Hungary. They are timid people, desperate not to get into any further trouble, and they have been so traumatized by their past that they never talk about it. For example, Vivien has been told nothing about her grandparents, though she does know that Ervin has an elder brother, Sándor, who is the black sheep of the family and who arrived in England only after 1956. When Vivien was ten, she had once caught a glimpse of Sándor, who turned up at their front door, only to be driven away by his brother, who would not explain to Vivien why he hated his brother so and who forbade any mention of him in the house; but soon afterwards there were reports on television about his arrest, and then books and newspaper articles programmes appear about Sándor, who, for his crimes as a particularly notorious and vicious rack landlord, had been sent to prison for fourteen years.

In 1977 Vivien, aged 24 and out of a job, accidentally sits next to him on a park bench: she recognizes him, but does not tell him who she is, though we are told fairly early on that he did realize who she was. Both of them will for a long time keep up the pretence that she is someone called Miranda. The old man is looking for someone to tape-record and then write up the story of his life, and Vivien takes on the job. In the course of it she learns about the past of which her parents had never spoken - it covers the years from 1916 to the Hungarian uprising of 1956. And she also learns what events had turned her father into such an anxious and timid creature, while Sándor, who had had an infinitely worse time in Hungary during the war, had learnt from them that only the tough, ruthless and selfish survive. But Vivien gradually begins to realize that even a `monster' has a human side. The first climax comes about two thirds through the book in which, well described as it is, her collusion is to me frankly unbelievable. The second climax, near the end and involving the novel's secondary plot of Vivien's relationship with one of her uncle's tenants, also strikes me as somewhat forced.

The story is set against the time when racist thugs of the National Front were very active and intimidating in certain London neighbourhoods, and that of course was a frightening reminder to the generation of refugees.

One theme of the book is that Vivien, partly because she had been kept in such ignorance of her roots, does not really know who she is. As a young woman and wanting to escape from the stifling atmosphere of her home, she goes through various styles of living, each of which involves its own way of dressing up. The clothes of all the characters are described in detail throughout the book, and are symbolic of their owners' lives. `The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in' is Vivien's rather odd generalization near the end - true perhaps of the clothes Vivien is given, less so surely of those she has chosen.

Some things in this book ring very true; others less so; but it is a good read; and when you have finished the book, you will want to read the first chapter, set in 2006, again.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dissapointing, 9 Aug 2009
By 
E. Lander (UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Clothes On Their Backs (Paperback)
A book that promised much, but fell short on delivery. Grant's powers of description are wonderful and she really brings 1970's London to life. Many interesting characters and themes are introduced, but are left dangling with no real follow-through. The story felt incomplete and the ending, flat and frankly, depressing. I don't understand the praise it has received...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great prose, but lacking coherence & credibility, 15 May 2012
At her best Linda Grant is a good & insightful writer, but I can only give this book 3 stars. It is an ambitious book attempting to examine various themes such as identity, the immigrant experience, love in its various forms, the legacy of the past etc etc. Unfortunately it proves too ambitious for Grant much of the time, often lacking coherence & sometimes clunkily episodic, leaving the impression that the writer was overwhelmed by the complexities of what she was trying to say & how to say it within the confines of the plot. Her examination of the nature & perception of evil, for example, seems to me muddled & inconclusive; did she intend to show that notions of evil are relative, or that 'bad' people may have a (redeeming? mitigating?)good side ? (Hardly revelations to the reasonably sophisticated reader: Goebbels liked classical music, Hitler was nice to children etc)
True, in the beautifully accomplished narrative concerning the idyllic infanthood in Hungary & subsequent events, she makes you empathise with Sandor. But nevertheless, he is an unrepentant, self-acknowledged amoral opportunist who has profited from the sufferings of others. I feel that Grant painted herself into a corner here & fudges it by having Sandor die before he can fully explicate those parts of his life, apart from brief & unconvincing accounts of how he was in fact, relatively speaking, doing his slum tenants a favour!
Surprisingly perhaps I did quite enjoy the book: there are many felicitous passages & the prose is compellingly good. But it was poorly structured & many parts of the story failed to convince me. I disliked the Eunice chapters at the beginning & end which were unconvincing & too obviously devices to introduce & bring closure to the story, something they failed to do. The incident where the conventional, dull, mouselike mother opportunistically steals clothe dropped on the stairs was stretched credulity (but of course helped along the theme of clothes identity & disguise). I think Grant, here & elsewhere, wanted to show that the mother was possessed of an inner strength & independence of mind, but again the overall picture does not gel.
I agree with those who found Vivien herself a shadowy & thus not particularly likeable character. Someone in the book calls her careless person, in the sense she is too detached, casual or shallow. Well, she is certainly careless in telling her story, describing some incidents in great detail but hurrying over or omitting great chunks of her experience. Of course this is not her autobiography so on the face of it there should be nothing wrong with this; what is wrong is that we should be aware of these awkward, abrupt jumps of setting, mood & pace.

Some here have talked about the suffering that caused the mother & father to emigrate/become reclusive. I do not see where this idea comes from. In his narrative, Sandor relates how the father, Ervin, decided to leave very suddenly - before the oppression of the Jews got really bad. There is a strong implication that he fled, not out of foresight, but because Sandor, & possibly others, knew something discreditable about the upright, uptight Ervin & he was afraid if he stayed his wife would find out. This throws light on Ervin's later violent refusal to let Sandor meet Vivien: he is a man who harbours grudges & he fears the knowledge that Sandor has about him.
An earlier reviewer seems to suggest that Sandor (who introduced her mother to Ervin) may in fact be Vivien's father, & although I can see no direct hint of this, it would certainly make a lot of sense.
Someone also said this novel is more like a draft than a final version, & to an extent I agree. There is much to enjoy here, but instead of enabling you to become totally engrossed in these people's stories, certain elements of the narrative stick out like broken bones out of skin, snagging your attention,saying: 'look at me I have been included as a device to achieve such & such effect'; others just stick out dumbly so that you are bemused as to why they are there at all.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good...up to a point., 29 Jun 2011
By 
Freckles (Knaresborough, North Yorkshire United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: The Clothes On Their Backs (Paperback)
I enjoyed this book ...up to a point. I found the narrative wandered a bit and I didn't care deeply about what happened to the central character, Vivien. Having said that, the characters were beautifully illustrated and there was a true insight in to 70s London ...both the good and bad times.
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The Clothes On Their Backs
The Clothes On Their Backs by Linda Grant (Paperback - 2 April 2009)
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