Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2008

The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant

This was a disappointment after When I Lived in Modern Times. Indeed, it seemed more like a first novel than a work by the winner of the Orange Prize 2000 – or did I miss something seen by the judges who shortlisted it for the 2008 Booker Prize?

I never really warmed to the characters and felt that the book kept losing direction. Vivien, the central character, is supposed to be a sensitive bookish girl, cowed into humdrum suburbia by parents who only want to be unobtrusive after arriving in the UK as refugees from Nazi Germany. She marries, loses her husband in an embarrassing bathetic way and so goes home to mum and dad. There she meets up with her disreputable Uncle Sandor, a slum landlord and just recently out of gaol.
Neither reveals their true identity and she inveigles her way into his home as an amanuensis – he wants his side of the story told, and her curiosity has got the better of her.

It’s bizarre, utterly unconvincing, and so is her relationship with Claude, one of Uncle Sandor’s exploited tenants. He’s a druggie who just wants sex, and she seems happy to oblige for no apparent reason. He’s a most unattractive character: his flat is filthy and he’s a creep.

Then there’s a shambolic reunion of the estranged brothers at Vivian’s 25th birthday party where her father abuses Sandor and his girlfriend, and then Sandor dies. Well, what else could Grant do with this muddle of a plot except kill him off?  It just doesn’t hang together, and the characters are not credible, especially not the parents.  I think I know what she was on about: trying to show that people can be so traumatised by oppression that they try to become ‘invisible’ in case it ever happens again, but it wasn’t convincing. 

I am baffled as to why this one got on the Booker shortlist…ok, I think that Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis etc have had their time, but The Trout Opera by Matthew Condon is an infinitely better book than TCOTB. Maybe its length counted against it? Maybe it was too Australian, or too focussed on an event now over and done, i.e. the Sydney Olympics?


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