Monday, March 29, 2010

A City Has Many Skins

"It was in that room that I started to read again. A leaflet says a little, a whole book is full of thoughts, ideas and makes you fall prey to complicated feelings; there is no anaesthesia in the pages of a novel. Often you find discomfort, as if you were sleeping like the princess on the mattresses on top of the pea." (Grant 226)

It's been weeks, months, possibly even a year since I last read a book 'just for fun'. Yesterday I sat down with The Clothes On Their Backs by Linda Grant. I sat down on my comfy bed, in my old room at my parent's place, the bed on which I used to spend hours and hours just reading. Without a pen in hand. Without any music on, once the album I put on stopped. Without anything to drink, once the tea I made myself got cold and I finished it in one big gulp between pages. I did nothing but read. And it felt amazing. (read more)

The book itself was alright.  A couple o weeks ago I woke up with an almost desperate urge to go downtown to buy a new book. Since that day was also the International Women's Day, I wanted to buy a book by a female author. That still is a lot harder that it should be these days. The Clothes On Their Backs was the only book by a female author that did not sound too depressing or to obsessed with mental illnesses. (Interesting and common topics, yet not what I was looking for..) A quiet childhood, refugees, glamor, family mysteries, a flashy uncle.. sounded alright. 

The book I bought for fun turned out to be no fun read, afterall. But a good one. The book revolves around the coming-of-age story of the narrator, Vivien, a vintage clothes obsessed child of Hungarian immigrants in a small, encapsulated, timid neighborhood in London. The book tackles large topics that, as so many aspects of the character's lives, feel both familiar and strange: The history of Hungarian jews in the second world war; London as a space for post-war refugees, West Indian immigrants, artists, punks, nazi skins and normal people; early marriage, early death and abortion. The at times upsetting or surprising plot if woven together by often elaborate description of fashion, especially of the flashy vintage clothes both Viviane and her mysterious uncle love.  Clothes are the only constant, the book seems to tell us, the only part of our lives we can control. Our past, history, our present and our future are constantly changing and beyond our control. The only elements of our identity, of our selves, that we can control are the clothes on our backs. 

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