It was obvious there had to be some gems somewhere on the Booker longlist this year and I'm finally confident that I've unearthed several singular books that will truly stand the test of time. Apparently forty of the forty-one previous winners remain in print, it's something I'm bearing in mind as I read.
I've only read one book by Linda Grant Remind Me Who I Am Again, so none of her fiction, and of course now I shall read more because The Clothes on Their Backs is such a fine expose of so many human flaws and failings, lies and secrets and so much more besides it's hard to know where to begin.
This is 1970s London, Benson Court off Marylebone High Street and the Kovacs, Hungarian refugees and their London-born daughter Vivien.
There is a past to be unraveled and somehow Vivien must find the loose end and start pulling. It's clear it will not be offered willingly by her parents so it's down to the enigmatic Uncle Sandor to start the ball rolling and Vivien to make some sense of the bird's-nest-tangle of family history that is presented as her heritage.
That's the gist and underpinning it all is this wonderful allegory of clothes and the role of clothes, and once I started reading and thinking 'clothes' it all became a doubly deeply satisfying read. The Hungarian refugees wearing the very last threads of their clothes, Vivien, constantly being dressed by others as she tries desperately to discover the real Vivien. As more and more of her history is revealed Vivien seems to know herself less and less.These are the shifting quicksands of memory and identity all wrapped in appearance and clothes and what they say about us.
George Szirtes gets the epigraph and is mentioned in both dedication and acknowledgements for his help with the Jewish-Hungarian elements of the book and I actually had to google my own blog to find where I'd mentioned him before because I knew that I had. I think I'll take that as a clear sign that I should read some of his books too.
The minute I met Linda Grant's brilliantly delineated character, the fascinatingly abrasive devil-may-care Uncle Sandor, and discovered the vitriol he seemed to attract as 'the face of evil', I knew I would be on the lookout for redemption somewhere. Here's a man who by his own admission had been 'lonely in my soul' and even if Linda Grant didn't provide that redemption I might have to create it for myself. Sandor became the character I wanted to understand as much as Vivien.
You'll have to read the book to discover whether Sandor is redeemed or not and quite who and what Vivien decides she is but there are plenty more competing themes and big issues milling around in The Clothes On Their Backs. My scribbles bear witness, this book really worked the pencil hard, war, uprising, persecution, diaspora, displacement, the loss of homeland, lies and secrets and ultimately just how does one generation shake off the fears, enmities and fashions of the previous one.Watch out for Vivien's early preference in clothes, it felt significant to me.
Plenty of priceless moments like this too.
Vivien is trying to decide on a career,
'I could be book reviewer, a literary critic for the newspapers and I would go to parties and meet interesting people and make friends....But didn't I need to work for The Times to be entrusted with a book to review?'
or this once the book arrives,
'I lay on my bed reading the book, which was very sappy in my opinion.I was summoning all the cruelty of the first time reviewer trying to make her mark. To be intimidated by the author's fame didn't occur to me, for in my arrogance I couldn't understand why someone who had, according to the author biography, a double frist from Somerville College, Oxford, should lower herself to write such tripe, when she had the example of Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. I certainly wouldn't, if ever I were to write a novel, which was bound to be of the highest literary order.'
If you read anyone who says that The Clothes On Their Backs is sappy, don't believe a word of it, trust me, it absolutely isn't. If you do read it, do as I did when you reach the end, turn back to the first page and start reading it again, because to reground yourself in the book's beginnings is to reap even more benefits and of course then you want to carry on to the end again.So much to miss first time around and lucky is the Booker judge who
had better be may be reading this one twice or thrice before next Tuesday, making it well-deserving of its place on my Booker shortlist.
It's at least a day since we had a prize draw so here we go again, a copy of this could be winging its way to you very shortly, names in comments and you heard it here first, for one day only Rocky has agreed to be called Frocky and he and Mrs Glosser and her Random Number Generator will drag themselves away from rummaging in that wardrobe to oblige with a winner tomorrow evening.