The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant - review by Lindy Burleigh

Lindy Burleigh

Costume Drama

The Clothes on their Backs


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Clothes matter to journalist and novelist Linda Grant and she has written a great deal about them. They also matter to the narrator of her latest novel, Vivien Kovacs, not so much because they enhance her beauty or express her personality but because they act as ‘armour’ or a ‘carapace’ to shield her from the world. Clothes serve all sorts of metaphorical purposes in Grant’s novel, but they’re also largely incidental to its main theme, which is the immigrant experience of arrival and belonging. Two narrative strands are deftly interwoven to explore the complexity of this experience: one is the coming of age story of Vivien, the only child of elderly Hungarian Jewish refugees, and the other is that of her uncle, Sandor Kovacs, a notorious Rachman-like slum landlord.

Vivien is born in Marylebone in the heart of London, but grows up isolated and cloistered in Benson Court, a gloomy mansion flat. Her parents fled Budapest before the outbreak of war and forged new lives for themselves. Vivien’s childhood is dull yet overshadowed by her father’s unexpressed anxiety that

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