2008, 293 p.
As a general rule, I dislike books that focus on descriptions of food, appearance- and now I have to add to this list- clothes. I might enjoy Simon and Maggie on The Cook and the Chef, and I generally read Maggie Alderson’s columns in The Age, but I dislike my narratives being shaped by obsessions about things that lend themselves to florid, overwrought writing on the one hand or triviality on the other.
Which leads me to The Clothes on their Backs. The author has recently released a non-fiction book about clothes, and I think that perhaps it is an interest best explored through a non-fiction rather than fictional lens (as, for example, in Queen of Fashion). Certainly in this book, you could detect that she wanted to explore the theme of clothing and its meaning further, but somehow it didn’t seem strong enough in its own right.
The story itself is set in the 1970s, based on a young widow, driven back to live with her emigrant Hungarian parents after her husband dies on their honeymoon. Her parents had come to England immediately prior to World War II, thus avoiding Hitler and the Cold War, and had burrowed into the safety of a small, enclosed flat where they brought up their only daughter with the silences and evasions borne of trauma. As a young child she caught a glimpse of a previously-unknown uncle who turned up on the doorstep, only to be turned away by her parents and not spoken of again. Later she discovers that he had been reviled and jailed as a slum landlord. Deeply depressed after her husband’s death, she returns to the parental home, where she happens to meet her uncle after his release from prison, and concealing her identity from him (or so she thinks), agrees to write his life story.
So, you might say, what does this have to do with clothes? Not much, and this is probably the weakness of the book. You sense that she wants to (puns ahead) weave the thread of clothing and what it denotes throughout her story, but it doesn’t work. I don’t know if this is because the story of her stultifying, enclosed upbringing as the child of refugee parents and the opposite persona of her uncle is so strong; or whether ‘clothing’ as a construct is not strong enough to carry it.
There are parts of this book that I really liked. The 1970s hasn’t really been mined as a timeframe in 21st century fiction (perhaps it was too embarrassing), although perhaps I’m just not thinking hard enough of examples. I liked her use of time, where she slipped back and forwards between her uncle’s backstory, the 1970s, and then current day.
But there were parts that were handled rather clumsily- her husband’s death had elements of farce as well as pathos, and her 25th birthday party, while it did have a surreal, dream-like edge, fell flat.
I wonder if I would have been so harsh on this book had it not been short-listed for the Booker Prize last year: probably not. Nor would I have read it either, I suspect. I have expectations that books short-listed for the Booker are the pick of the crop, and that more deeply-flawed books would have been dropped between the long and the short list. None of this in the author’s control- the selection in the first place; the quality of the surrounding books; the criteria by which the prize is awarded; the expectations that a reading public has of a ‘Booker shortlist’ book. I feel as if this book is a child that has been dragged out into a strong spotlight , scrunching up her eyes and shielding them from the light of publicity and expectation. It’s not the child’s fault: it’s the pushy parent on the sidelines, willing her to be something more than she is.