Saturday, August 1, 2009

It's all about the clothes

Lately, I haven't been paying attention to the clothes I've been wearing. I wake up, take a shower, eat breakfast, and then put on whatever feels comfortable and convenient. I guess when you're happy and contented, the last thing you worry about are the clothes you wear.

In Linda Grant's achingly beautiful novel, The Clothes on Their Backs, clothes are what her characters use to transform themselves. They are "instruments of metamorphosis, changing people from the outside in." The story focuses on Vivien Kovacs, the educated daughter of Jewish immigrant parents who came to London just before World War II from Hungary. Growing up, Vivien lives a sheltered life, often just confined in her room and imagining herself as the characters in the books she reads. Her parents are reclusive. Her father evades any discussion about his family and his life in Hungary. Her mother spends her day looking after their small London apartment and watching TV programs in the evening.

One day, she discovers that his father has a brother, Sandor Kovacs, who comes knocking on their door accompanied by an Indian escort. Her father angrily slams the door on Sandor and tells Vivien never to have any contact with him. Vivien never does, at least not until the 1970s when she graduates from the university, gets married, and becomes a widow on her honeymoon. When she returns to her parent's home, she decides to get to know his uncle better. She offers to help him write his biography, hoping that the stories he would tell would provide insights on her family and their past.

The Clothes on Their Backs touches on several important themes -- family, relationships, and the past. Normally, any novel that attempts to focus on these comes off as a difficult and pedantic read. But Grant's prose flows naturally. You can't help but turn the pages and just appreciate the narrative. And even if the story transports you to the horrors of war in the 1930s to the social problems in Britain during the 70s, you don't feel threatened by the seriousness of the subject matter.

Grant uses clothes as a literary device to full effect. A simple careless act by a stranger becomes a joy to read:
Everything was taken away by a man in a stained leather jerkin and studded boots. As he was hefting a trunk its rotten bottom fell out, showering the hall with silks, satins, velvets, broiderie anglaise, lace and feathers, in peach, apricot, grape and plum-colored shades: a dazzling momentary rain of richness, that my mother ran to gather in her arms and then she raced up the stairs, slamming the door of our flat, panting.
Clothes, too, take on a very important role when Grant describes a particular scene in a German quarantine camp, where Sandor was taken as a prisoner:
In clean clothes they felt suddenly reborn. They examined their rags for signs that they had once been human beings. Might this be a flap, and was this an indication of a pocket? A piece of cloth bore faint traces of once having been tweed. This man's trousers had once been exhibited in the window of a fashionable department store in 1937, with a ticket indicating a high price. But though the slaves were clean and dry, they were also starving. They ripped grass from the earth and ate it. Men were writing and dying in their boiled clothes.
What motivates Vivien to reach out to his uncle is the apparent conflict between his father and Sandor. What could have happened between these two brothers for her father to harbor a deep detestation for his one-time thug/pimp/gangster brother? Sandor's account of his travails -- from the time they were in Hungary as children to his underworld reign in London -- is riveting. And despite the fact that the book moves back and forth in differing time frames and settings, not once do you lose your place in the story.

Perhaps, the metaphor of clothes is most evident in Vivien herself. As a person who has never been confident of her talents, Vivien changes her wardrobe every time she finds herself in a new environment. It's as if that, in her many insecurities and uncertainties about who she really is, she finds a comfort in the clothes she puts on every day. In her lack of knowing significant details of her parents and their pasts, it is through clothes where she attempts to fill these gaps.

The Clothes on Their Backs was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize. I think it's way better than the eventual winner, Adiga's The White Tiger. While the issues that Grant explores in her novel have been explored many times over, it is the freshness of Grant's approach that makes the novel hugely enjoyable. In contrast, Adiga's presentation of the poverty in India feels like a well-written rehash of other Indian novels, particularly Mistry's A Fine Balance without the lyricism.

Read this book if:
  1. You think that no one can even come close to how weird your parents are.
  2. You feel that your clothes somehow define who you are.
  3. You just want to go through all the Booker shortlisted novels (like me).


Vivienne said...

This sounds fabulous. Definitely a book I would enjoy reading. I have The White Tiger too, but haven't read it yet.
I very rarely think about what clothes I wear. Definitely hate buying them, that is for sure!

Anonymous said...

Your detailed review has intrigued me enough to add this to my wish list.

Peter S. said...

@Vivienne: The Clothes on Their Backs was a surprising read. It makes you think about how your clothes define you.

@Stacy: I hope you get to read this novel soon!

Anonymous said...

Great review! I have never heard of this book and but enjoyed reading about it!

Peter S. said...

Hi Sheila! You'll surely enjoy reading about this novel.

mental wayfarer said...

I have to read this book! I subscribe to the theory that clothes can change your mood; like i believe that no matter how bad you feel, if you make an effort to smile, your state of mind will follow. Glad to know i'm not weird...:)

Peter S. said...

Hi Ajie! Yes, I think you'll find this book hugely enjoyable.