I’ve been making more use of my local library lately. It’s very small and Dorset’s library resources are so limited that books are passed around between branches. I will quite often ask for a book and be told, ‘We did have it, but it’s gone somewhere else now’. You people living in London, Oxford or Cambridge don’t know how lucky you are. I only mention this because the copy of The Clothes on Their Backs which I’ve just read came from Weymouth. It has a special sticker inside saying, ‘Man Booker 2008’; obviously purchased so that we culture starved provincials can keep up. Even so, I was only the second person to borrow this (not so cultured in Dorset, then?) so it was like reading a lovely new book.
I loved this book from page one. Vivien is the child of immigrant parents, people so timidly fearful of authority that they have stayed in the flat found for them on their arrival by the WRVS in ‘a twenty five year hibernation’. They tell Vivien nothing about their background; it’s a while before she realises she is Jewish. Vivien only learns the truth from her ‘evil’ uncle Sándor, a character based on the notorious slum landlord, Rachman. ‘I felt that everything had happened already, that we living ones were just shadows of the real events, weak outlines cast down the decades.’
Clothes are central to the book, the power of clothes to define and transform a person. The second-hand beiges of Vivien’s parents; her own progression from vintage chic through punk until she ‘started to dress like a woman approaching thirty’; Uncle Sándor’s love of the flash suit and the expensive jewellery; his elegant girlfriend. Set mostly in 1970s London, this is a rite of passage book with a difference.