A reader's guide to The Clothes On Their Backs

Updated Tuesday 1st September 2009

Loss, recovery and further loss amongst emigrees who fled to London to escape the attentions of Hitler's followers.

To belong to a place, now that is really something. No Kovacs ever felt that before!

Ervin and Berta were Jewish immigrants to Britain in 1938, settling in Marylebone as ‘mice-people’ in a ‘condition of mouse-hood’.

Their daughter, Vivien, was unaware that she had another relative until she was ten, when her mysterious uncle Sándor turned up and was summarily dismissed.

Soon afterwards he was imprisoned, reviled by the press with a photo and the caption: ‘Is this the face of evil?'

In her twenties, Vivien became her uncle’s amanuensis, transcribing his memoirs, and her family’s history was gradually revealed.

Abandoned Victorian house Creative commons image Icon Brother Magneto under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
Now awaiting demolition: a Victorian slum dwelling in central London [Image: Brother Magneto under CC-BY-NC licence]

Sándor had made his money as a pimp and racketeering slum landlord. In the 1950s and 1960s it was difficult for Caribbean immigrants to find accommodation in London, so he targeted this market. Although perturbed, Vivien felt a degree of empathy:

'The various choices made by my uncle and my father: one to survive against all the odds, the other to exist in a half-life, required me to ask myself what I would have done in their place.'

Now in her fifties, Vivien reflects upon the family tensions; her relationship with Sándor’s tenant Claude; the rise of the National Front; loss, recovery, and further loss: 'I had wanted to live, and I had lived.'

Reviewers have noted the author’s references to clothes: some have felt that the details enrich the novel; others have expressed disappointment that the ‘overarching metaphor’ is not teased out further. Do share your views!


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