Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs
Many years ago, as an impressionable young boy just discovering Oscar Wilde, I went through a phase of trying to come up with bon mots - witty yet wise one-liners that I fondly imagined future generations would quote at each other. The fruits of this Rochefoucaldian labor, needless to say, were uniformally ghastly, and included, among other horrors, the following observation: "All clothes are revealing; they reveal who we are". Even to my relatively uncritical twelve year old mind this was a cliche, so much so that I mercifully decided not to share it with another living soul (well, until now).
Linda Grant, it seems, has no such compunctions. Not only does she seem to feel that the idea that the clothes we wear express and shape our identity is a startling new insight (imagine that! the clothes you wear are reflective of who you are! who would have thought it?), but so enamored is she by the thought that she makes it the central motif of her new novel, repeatedly hammering home the point with an avidity that would cut through the thickest of crania. The result is a banal, pointless book that takes a set of stock characters, clothes them in the flimsiest of plots and then pretends that the result is haute couture, when it's really little more than drab pret-a-porter.
Set in London in the 70's (amid the growing popularity of the right-wing National Front) with sidetrips to Nazi Europe, The Clothes on Their Backs is the story, told in flashback (isn't everything these days?) of Vivien Kovaks, a young girl born to immigrant parents, who finds herself caught between the cloistered life of her parents, who fled to England from Hungary just before World War II and have lived fearfully in their adopted country ever since, and the larger-than-life presence of her Uncle Sandor, a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to England in the mid-50s only to become a slumlord and a pimp, and whose flamboyance Vivien finds herself drawn to both because it represents a way of being acutely alive and because it gives her the chance to connect to her family history, a history her parents have kept assiduously hidden from her.
By itself, this is a not unpromising if somewhat hackneyed plot (I found myself thinking, for instance, in my long stretches of being bored by the book, what a fine job someone like Roth would have done with a character like Sandor Kovacs). The trouble is, that's pretty much all there is to the book. That little one paragraph outline is more or less the sum of what the book has to offer. Oh, there are a few additional details of course, a handful of perfunctory characters, a few dabs at plot development, if an accumulation of wildly improbable and arbitrary coincidences can be given that name, but on the whole Grant doesn't so much deepen the story as extend it. True to her central idea of surface appearance being all, Grant's characters never take on the authentic feel of flesh and blood and remain mere mannequins, artfully arranged in deliberate poses to represent the different attitudes and idealogies she wants them to. Indeed, there are points in the story when Grant almost seems to rely on the generic nature of her plot. Rather than describe Sandor's experiences during the War in any real detail, for instance, she gives us only a sketchy outline and falls back on the easy shorthand of tagging him a Holocaust survivor. The result is an underdeveloped book that has virtually no emotional impact and that feels, if not quite formulaic than at least mathematical - a sort of writing by numbers, all the pieces fitting together in a neat but uninspired way.
To be fair, every now and then Grant does exert herself a little, adding a handful of colorful scenes and side stories (a dance lesson, a side-character's half gypsy parentage) to make the novel a little more interesting. These interjections seem unmotivated and unnecessary, though, and while they do little to relieve the tedium of the main story, they make the plot seem even more bizarre by adding a number of peculiar side-stories to a narrative already too weighed down by improbable coincidence. There are moments when The Clothes on Their Backs is genuinely engaging - most notably, to my mind, when Grant describes the sub-culture of 'vintage' clothing and the rituals involved in searching for it - but these are mere flickers in an otherwise stale and unoriginal book.
Overall, The Clothes on Their Backs is not so much a bad book as a trivial one - a novel with so little to offer the reader that it doesn't justify even the three to four hours it takes to read.
[Part of the 2008 Booker Prize Mela]