The Clothes On Their Backs

Linda Grant

Orange Prize winner and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008, Linda Grant has created an enchanting portrait of a woman who, having endured unbearable loss, finds solace in the family secrets her estranged uncle reveals. In vivid and supple prose, Grant subtly constructs a powerful story of family, love, and the hold the past has on the present.

Vivien Kovacs, a sensitive, bookish girl grows up sealed off from the world by her timid Hungarian refugee parents, who conceal the details of their history and shy away from any encounter with the outside world. She learns how to navigate British society from an eccentric cast of neighbors — including a fading ballerina, a cartoonist, and a sad woman who wanders the city and teaches Vivien to be beautiful. She loses herself in books and reinvents herself according to her favorite characters, but it is through clothes that she ultimately defines herself.

Against her father’s wishes, she forges a relationship with her uncle, a notorious criminal and slum landlord, who, in his old age, wants to share his life story. As he exposes the truth about her family’s past Vivien learns how to be comfortable in her own skin and how to be alive in the world.

Grant is a spectacularly humanizing writer whose morally complex characters explore the line between selfishness and self-preservation.

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