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jeudi 30 octobre 2008

The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant

The setting is London, 1970's.  The background is a series of dreary flats off the Marylebone Road. Berta and Ervin Kovacs  and their daughter live in possibly the drabbest of the lot. If I were to chose an image by which to hold on to this story, it would be that of doors being slammed shut. Early on in the book,  Vivien who calls herself Miranda in the central part of the novel, observes her father slam the door on a  man unknown to her, a person of glamorous appearance,  accompanied by a  woman of color wearing a leopard coat who is  equally expensively  shod and dressed.  They have come to call on Mr. and Mrs. Kovacs and their daughter.  The man is Vivien's father's brother who has a history of crime and prison behind him, the woman is his companion. Both brothers are hungarian refugees; the respectable and rather dreary parents left in 1938, Sandor left in 1956 after having suffered the nightmare of the war, the anti-semitism, the russian occupation, horrendous tortures.

The slamming of the door gets rid of the brother but it does not get rid of the past even though every effort has been made by Vivian's parents to close all possible doors which the child, the young girl and later the adult daughter, had tried to open. The doors had ben slammed shut.

And yet the book is about that past.  It is also about Vivien's relentless quest to open the doors once and for all and to understand why they had been shut.  Her curiosity not heeded. There is also a moral dimension to the story. Sandor, the  brother whose criminal history is being investigated by the rather righteous young woman, challenges her assumption of good and evil as too easy, too trivial to take in the complexities of a human life which offers, in fact, rather fewer choices than those for which she had made allowances in her still juvenile and innocent judgments.

I find that the title does not reflect the message; yes, clothes define the woman's  as she wishes to be seen; the man also dresses to reflect his sense of self, but surly the book offers much more in the way of subtleties than this would suggest.

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