Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Picking out the detail that sings (Books - The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant)

I had begun Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances this weekend, but am finding that it's not doing it for me. I'm chalking that up to finals-time finickiness. When I have this much to do and this little time for reading, I want a very particular kind of reading experience. I want a story, told unselfconsciously about people who I care for; it can have plenty of depth, but I don't want tricky, I don't want peculiar, and I don't want complex. So far, Atmospheric Disturbances has struck me as highly intelligent but quirky, and its tone has kept me from engaging with the characters. And if I read one more book about someone with Capgras syndrome, I'm going to scream. I'll give the book one more try after finals.

That being the case, I picked up The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant, which Man Booker shortlisted this past year. It had just arrived in a box with gifts for other people (but I felt no need to pay for shipping and so topped off my order with a book for myself. Oh alright, two books). So as I was saying, I started The Clothes on Their Backs with my eyes bleary from a full day of studying and writing a last-minute abstract to submit to a conference, and I don't know whether I'm happy or sad to have begun it. It is so good I wound up not just reading for ten minutes and drifting off, but being reawakened by the clarity of the characters Grant has created and captivated by the easy flow of her unfussy prose.
This morning, for the first time in many years, I passed the shop on Seymour Street. I saw the melancholy sign in the window which announced that it was closing down and through the glass the rails on which the clothes hung, half abandoned, as if the dresses and coats, blouses and sweaters had fled in the night, vanished down the street, flapping their empty arms.
The tone is set in two simple sentences. The story will look back and there will be much sadness in it. Such a clear image, those clothes have created for me, and I haven't yet met a single character. Grant does this with each person and place that we meet - she walks around in its details, picking out a few choice bits that end up singing out - like the really great voice in a big chorus.
Our flat was rented, for a pittance. The bowler-hatted ladies of the Women's Royal Voluntary Service found it for my parents when they arrived in England in 1938 as young refugees from Budapest. There is a photograph of them turning the key in the front door, their smiles like wooden postboxes. Safely on the other side, they bolted it, and tried to come out as little as possible. They had brought with them a single piece of furninshing: an ivory Chinaman with an ebony fishing rod which was a wedding present from my mother's aunt. For the Coronation of the Queen they bought a television which they coddled with their constant anxious attention, worryin that if they left it off too long it would refuse to turn back on, for sets in those days needed 'warming up,' and supposed it got too cold? Would it die altogether, out of spite for their neglect?
It was at 'smiles like wooden postboxes,' that I myself smiled, though not particularly like a postbox, and settled in for a good read. More to come.


Anonymous said...

This is interesting for me because I started Linda Grant's When I Lived in Modern Times sometime last year and ended up putting it down. I've promised myself to try again at some point and I will, but I may also give a different novel of hers a go first and see if that helps...

Anonymous said...

The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant might redeem me from bowing out of the Man Booker Challenge, of which I am two books short.

Like you, I'm tuning out of tricky, dense, and tedious books for this time of the year for more lighter fares. I read The Boy in the Striped pajamas but for the easy and unfussy prose that it's intended for young adults, the story is very intense.

I'll have to hunt down a copy of the Linda Grant book for sure! :)

Ted said...

Verb - I guess there are those books for all of us. If you try another of her's I'll be interested to hear your thoughts.

Matt - I still haven't read Darkmans, as I promised for the Man Booker challenge. And it ain't going to happen before the year's end. Have you read Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor? That's a good Man Booker book. It is not light reading by a long shot, but it is beautiful, easy to read, and short.

Anonymous said...

I'll take your suggestion of The Good Doctor. I need something short so I can finish the challenge. :)