When are we 'looking out for number one' (as the saying goes) and when are we simply being selfish? This is the tenuous border explored in Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs. Vivien Kovacs is the daughter of Jewish parents who fled Budapest for London just prior World War II. Her parents' experiences have made them guarded people, nervous of authority, happier to not be noticed, and over-protective of their only child. Her father harbors a deep hatred of his only and much wealthier brother, Sandor, because Sandor earned his money in morally questionable ways. What I enjoyed most about this book is how complex the characters were and yet how unsensational and straightforward the story telling. Similarly to Paper Towns, which I posted on yesterday evening, Sandor exists as a character in other peoples' narratives. He exists is something that happens to them. Life conspires to deal Vivien a tragic blow, and in its aftermath,she feels she must understand who she is. She knows nothing of her parent's past, as they have always been tight-lipped about anything that happened prior to their arrival in London. Her uncle has always figured as a monster, a character so evil that no one talks about him. He becomes a missing piece in her understanding of herself, and she sets out to learn his story.
Grant has two narratives nested one inside the other, Uncle Sandor's and that of Vivien herself, and by extension, her parents. These multifaceted characters embody the ways that contradictions can live side by side in a single individual. Character and theme are inseparably intertwined in this story. Along with Grant's exploration of morality, is a second question of surface appearances. The great love of Sandor's life is Eunice - memorably drawn by Grant. Eunice is of West Indian heritage, has dark skin, and is the owner of a dress shop. Sandor himself is portrayed by Grant as a physically ugly man. Sandor, Vivien's parents and Eunice, all embody various legacies of the excuses people give to hate each other - some are hated for what they are thought to have done, some for who they are inside, and others simply for what they look like on the surface. The book's later chapters occur in 1977 during the rise of the skin heads in England, when the book's central characters once again face the terror of overt persecution. While the narrative and its details accumulate apace, Grants's writing is unhysterical. I felt she really earned her climactic scene - set in the midst of both the political tension and the personal tensions that she has patiently set up. It has some real white-knuckled moments of suspense in it. This is humane and well-fashioned story telling - a most worthwhile read. Here is my other post about The Clothes on Their Backs.