‘The Clothes on their Backs’ by Linda Grant

Grant has written an unusual immigrant story.  Vivien’s parents have never told her much about the time before they moved to a new land and took up residence in a small flat in London. Without much joy or activity beyond the regular routines of daily living, the only thing her father is passionate about is how much he hates his brother.

Unbeknownst to her father, Vivien meets with her uncle, a notorious and reviled slum landlord,  and helps him to write a memoir. In the telling he gives Vivien something she never got from her parents – the stories of the past –  and gives the reader some empathy for him. Is a monster excused because he has suffered?

Clothing plays an important role in this book. Grant skilfully captures the mysterious link between clothing and personality. The imagination in how we clothe ourselves or how we view how others are clothed, is something intriguing and intuitive to those who find that sort of thing interesting.

Though shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and though parts of this book were interesting and well written, I cannot say that I enjoyed it very much or found it very compelling. Although I liked what the author did with her descriptions of the clothing and the unfolding of the immigrant story, I also found it in many ways awkward and unfocused.

This was a book club assignment and I am anxious to discover what the others thought of it. Sometimes my opinion of a book increases when I hear what others appreciated about it. Will we all be thinking extra hard about what we wear to the meeting? 🙂

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