The Clothes on Their Backs – Linda Grant


Tasmanian winters are, by Australian standards, long, chillsome and in some areas, very, very pluvial. We are, on this island in the southern seas, on the cusp of a brand new one. They take a great deal of getting through for this scribbler with summer in his synapses – and I’ve been through a few. But I am away from that part of the isle where the mid-year months meant the westerlies bearing down on my coastal environs, downloading a heavy cargo of the world’s purest precipitation. This old fella is more sanguine about the cold season now that I am in southern climes. Hobart winters, under a Kunanyi oft frosted with white icing, can have freezing starts, but now I do not seem to possess the lack the forbearance I once had for winters past. I am just chuffed to be still here no matter what the seasons throw at me. Burnie/Yolla winters seem a now distant memory.

But it was forbearance I required to get through this book. Although the climate played no great part in it – to me it seemed continually grey and drab. It was like those Tassie winters of my teaching days – a hard slog, hoping there was a moment of sunshine up ahead. In the tome there wasn’t – spring never came, although I stuck at it in the hope. It was not aided by the mittel-Europeanness of its context, nor by its time setting – the Winter of Discontent in Thatcherite London. Under Abbott methinks we may be in for something similar here – certainly he seems intent on a diaspora from this island, as there was from Hungary post-war – something that shaped two generations of characters in Grant’s offering, ‘The Clothes on Their Backs’.

It’s not that Ms Grant isn’t a fine writer. I was entranced, bowled over by her later ‘We Had it So Good’ – thus the purchase of this title – and she has won an Orange for ‘When I Lived in Modern Times’. I won’t be shelling out for the latter any time soon.

linda grant

Although this is a book I’d perhaps prefer to forget, essentially it is the story of a girl racked by self-doubt, trying to break away from the stifling family life lived by her parents, former Magyar refugees. Their lives were joyless, just simply existing in a depressing block of flats amidst other assorted odd-bods. How our heroine achieves her freedom is by aligning herself with the black sheep of the family – her Uncle Sandor. He, in past lives, had been a pimp and tenement owner ripping off the displaced. When she eventually finds love, tragedy strikes and she resorts to ‘friends with benefits’, slumming it till Sandor provide his means of escape.

I hate it when I don’t like a book. There is always a decision to be made – do I persevere in the hope some sunlight will come, or chuck it in before I’m trapped by endless winter. I made the wrong decision here.


Linda Grant’s website =

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