Sunday, December 7, 2008

Finding the Past

“The Clothes on Their Backs” by English author Linda Grant was short listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. The heroine of this involved story that spans over sixty years is Vivien Kovacs. Vivien is the daughter of Hungarian Jewish refugees who escaped from Hungary before the war and found themselves in London. The ladies of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service found the Kovacs a flat in the staid Benson Court where they, almost literally, hid for fifty years. Vivien’s father was a master craftsman in the backroom of a gold and diamond jeweler, and her mother rarely left the flat. They never mentioned to Vivien that they were Jewish.

As a lonely, only child Vivienne “floated through time and space…. Until I was ten I was completely unaware that I had a relative”. The doorbell rang one day and a voice on the other side of the door claimed to be Vivien’s father’s brother. But Vivien’s father angrily cried. “Go away or I will call the police”. With that introduction Vivien had an infamous, evil uncle.

Vivien finally escapes her life at Benson Court by going to college where she meets and falls in love with the quintessential tall, blond, English boy. The residents at Benson Court send Vivien and her new husband off on a honeymoon to the French Riviera where her beloved Alexander dies on the second night of the honeymoon as the result of a ghastly accident. Vivien returned to London and Benson Court and fought depression as she wandered the streets of London. One day she finds herself in Regent Park sitting next to her uncle "The Face of Evil". Her uncle is a criminal who used woman to make his fortune and then became a notorious slum landlord who landed in jail. Vivien and her uncle form a bond as she agrees help him write his memoirs. He tells the story of his wonderful childhood with Vivien’s father and their parents in Hungary, of how Vivien’s father and mother left and he stayed to be imprisoned and tortured. He gave Vivien a past, which her parents had denied her. Sandor Kovaks' story is sad, funny and dramatic, and probably the best part of the book.

Linda Grant has written a story with many layers and diverse characters. The main theme of this story is that things and people are not always what they seem to be, and it sometimes takes strange twists of fate to reveal what the truth is. The plot and the writing make for a very enjoyable, although sometimes convoluted, novel.

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