The Clothes On Their Backs by Linda Grant

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?

The Sunday Salon – This Week’s Books

This last week has been yet another week away from home and reading has had to be slotted in. I read late at night when I nodded off with a book in my hand or early in the mornings when the time speeds up at an alarming rate so I hardly felt I’d read much at all. However, this week I finished reading Joyce Carol Oates The Gravedigger’s Daughter and yesterday I finished reading Daphne du Maurier’s The House On The Strand. I also started Linda Grant’s The Clothes On Their Backs (short listed for the Booker Prize).

This morning I read the introduction to The House On The Strand and dipped into Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne Du Maurier to see what she had to say about it too. This was my first reading of The House On The Strand and I was drawn into its world immediately. I read it quickly and without taking notes, so this is just a brief summary of the book. It’s a story of time-travel as Dick Young moves between the present day and the 14th century set in Cornwall – around Par Sands and the Manor of Tywardreath. Dick is staying at Kilmarth (the house where Du Maurier lived after she was forced to leave Menabilly), the guest of his friend Magnus, a scientist researching the effect of a psychedelic drug. The drug produces hallucinations of time travel and as Dick moves in his mind to the 14th century he physically moves across the present day landscape crossed by roads and railway lines that he cannot see. The difference in the landscape plays a central part in the story.

Life in the 14th century is more to Dick’s liking than his own, where he is married not too happily to Vita, an American with two sons from an previous marriage. The 14th century world is full of danger, intrigue, adultery and murder and he falls in love (from afar, of course) with Isolda, a beautiful young woman married to a scoundrel, Sir Oliver Carminowe and in love with Sir Otto Bodrugan. Du Maurier had researched the history of Kilmarth and the local families and she was so exhilarated by the story that she actually  “woke up one day with nausea and dizziness” and could hardly bear to leave it for more than a few hours. Dick is a rather pathetic figure disllusioned with his marriage, unable to relate to his step-sons and alienated from his own times.

The combination of historical fact and psychological study moves into fantasy with the effect of the mind-expanding drug Dick takes. Du Maurier was writing in 1967 when LSD was well established, and in this book she has elaborated on its effects in describing Dick’s experiences as though on each trip a chemical time machine enabled him to continue the narrative of events with the same characters.  I did have to suspend my disbelief at times whilst reading but was carried along by Dick’s increasing obssession and addiction to the 14th century. It reminded me a bit of The Scapegoat by Du Maurier, a book I read many years ago – time for a re-read of that soon.

I alternated my reading between Linda Grant’s The Clothes On Their Backs and The House On The Strand. Grant’s book is narrated by Vivian as she looks back on her life, growing up in London in the 1960s and 1970s, the only child of refugee parents, fascinated by her glamorous and notorious Uncle Sandor. In the acknowledgements Grant states that the character of Sandor was inspired by that of the Notting Hill landlord Peter Rachman. I’m only about half way through this book which includes, as you would expect from its title, many descriptions of clothes and how they define us; how we use them to create or disguise our personalities.

I particularly liked the description of how Vivian reads:”Somehow I would climb inside the books I read, feeling and tasting them – I became the characters themselves.” It reminded me of Du Maurier’s immersion in the characters in her novels. Both books look at identity and how personalities influence and are influenced by others and both have entertained me thoughout this week.

The House On The Strand is the first book I’ve read for the RIP III Challenge.