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I read a great review of The Clothes on The Backs by Linda Grant on the Granta website, so I thought I'd give it a read.
The story centres around Vivien, the daughter of Hungarian refugees, living in London during the 70s. Her parents are very glad to be in the UK, but seal themselves off from their past and their surroundings. The wonderful and eccentric people that live in the apartment block provide Vivien's childhood with much needed colour, but I felt it was a bit convenient that so many unique people lived so close by.
One day Vivien's uncle turns up with the exotic trappings of extreme wealth. Her father won't discuss his brother, and in Vivien's imagination he presents an alluring conundrum. The body of the book explores her Uncle Sandor's story as a Hungarian refugee, his torture and abuse, and his subsequent life as a slum landlord in London. A few defining tragedies in Vivien's life make this reunion possible, and it was these I most objected to, as they felt very contrived. I don't want to spoil the plot by exposing them here.
Vivien as a character is interesting; she feels lost, insecure and is unsure of where she belongs. Perhaps for these reasons her character isn't really as engaging as it could be, and I found it hard to empathise. Her uncle is a colorful character, and his life both tragic and victorious, but again I found it hard to connect. Ultimately Vivien finds resolution through new love, and her own daughters. The story is actually narrated by the older Vivien, and we get tantalising glimpses of her life, but nothing concrete. Perhaps the book could have benefitted from a further exploration of her second husband.
Overall this is a pleasant read, but somehow it left me wanting slightly.