lundi 9 avril 2012

The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant (2008)

Linda Grant has been writing the same tragi-comic novel over and over since 1995. The narrator is an assimilated English-Jewish woman, there is some trans-continental travel, a love affair or two (sometimes) gone wrong, post-holocaust characters trying to live a normal life, and a surprise or mystery at the core of the narrator's family. I love them all.

In The Clothes on their Backs, the narrator, Vivien Kovaks (Kovacs Klein), is in her mid 50s and looking back to 1977 where the bulk of the action takes place, the year that the National Front became dangerously active in the UK. She organizes an encounter with her newly-located Uncle Sandor (a character based loosely on real-life slumlord Peter Rachman) and agrees to transcribe his bleak life story. The result is an extraordinary clash of ideas and personalities, rich with Yiddish constructions and immigrant trials, shadowed by the delightfully elusive questions: does he know who she is? Does he know that she knows who he is?
This enterprise culminates in a fiasco of a birthday party, a failed family reunion and a violent, race-related altercation.

The book parallels different and ultimately flawed ways of responding to the world: Uncle Sandor is brave but incapable of nuanced morality, Viven's father is afraid of the consequences of his actions and runs away. Vivien has the monumental task of understanding the suspicious, paralyzing world she grows up in, freeing herself from its constraints and finally forgiving herself for failing from time to time.

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