Vivian, the only child of refugee parents, grows up at Benson Court in London during the 1960s and 1970s. Her parents are quiet, timid people, and they live a sheltered life, wanting to be inconspicuous. Vivian describes herself as
the child of old parents, a pair of cranky odd Europeans with wierd opinions. Oppressive ideas formed in the stale gloom.
As a child she is fascinated by her glamorous and notorious Uncle Sandor, the infamous slum landlord, much to her parents’ distress who want to deny any relationship to him. She leaves home briefly going to York University where she hides her identity by wearing vintage clothes. She arrived wearing a”crepe de Chine cocktail dress and created an instant, sensational impression.” She met Alexander, a “tall, blond Englishman with his mutton chop whiskers which were all the rage in the early seveties and the long narrow feet in their suede desert boots” – a vicar’s son from Hereford. They marry but he dies on their honeymoon and she returns to live with her parents at Benson Court.
Vivian’s problem is that her parents are silent about their lives before coming to England and refuse to tell her about her uncle. This intrigues her and she feels she doesn’t know who she is. Much of the book is about her efforts to find out. So when she meets Sandor on a park bench she pretends she is “Miranda” and takes the job of writing his life story. There is much in this that I found implausible, including the climax of the story.
The clothes the characters wear are described in detail and are symbolic of their identities and lives. Vivian ponders on the power of clothes to create or disguise our personalities:
A new dress. Is this all it takes to make a new beginning, this shred of dyed cloth, shaped into the form of a woman’s body? The crowd hurried past, their faces lit with anxiety and excitement. Our vulnerability suddenly touched me, all our terrible, moving weaknesses contained in a jacket, a skirt, a pair of shoes.
Well, I know Trinny and Susannah are always going on about the importance of wearing the right clothes and the impact that has on our lives, but I’m not so sure that clothes have the power to change one’s personality. For a new beginning surely you need more than a new dress?
The Clothes On Their Backs is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the winner is to be announced on 14 October. I’ve started The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry, but I haven’t read the rest of the shortlisted book. I doubt this one will win, but who knows?