The Clothes On Their Backs

A Novel

The Clothes On Their Backs

Orange Prize Winner and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008, Llinda Grant has created an enchanting portrait of a woman who, having endured unbearable loss, finds solace in the family secrets her estranged uncle reveals.

Vivien Kovacs, sensitive and bookish, grows up sealed off from the world by her timid Hungarian refugee parents. She loses herself in books and reinvents herself according to her favorite characters, but it is through clothes that she ultimately defines herself.

Against her father’s wishes, she forges a relationship with her estranged uncle, a notorious criminal, who, in his old age, wants to share his life story. As he reveals the truth about her family’s past, Vivien, having endured unbearable loss, learns how to be comfortable in her own skin and how to be alive in the world.

Linda Grant is a spectacularly humanizing writer whose morally complex characters explore the line between selfishness and self-preservation. In vivid and supple prose, Grant has created a powerful story of family, love, and the hold the past has on the present.
  • Scribner | 
  • 304 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781439142363 | 
  • November 2008
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Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Clothes on Their Backs includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. 


Vivien Kovacs, a sensitive and imaginative girl, grows up sealed off from the world in a London apartment building full of eccentric recluses.  Her timid parents conceal the details of their escape from Hungary during the Holocaust and shy away from any encounter with the outside world, so Vivien must learn to navigate society on her own.  With the help of a large wardrobe of vintage clothes, Vivien sets out for college and transforms herself into a beautiful and educated young woman.  But, when tragedy strikes, Vivien returns home to her parents and to a routine of lonely, empty days and nights.  A chance encounter leads Vivien to her estranged uncle, notorious criminal and slum lord, Sándor Kovacs.  Against her father’s wishes she helps Sándor record his life story, which he is anxious to share in his old age.  As Sándor reveals the surprising truth about her family’s past, see more

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About the Author

Linda Grant
Photo Credit: Judah Passow

Linda Grant

Linda Grant is a novelist and journalist. She won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 and the Lettre Ulysses Prize for the Art of Reportage in 2006. Her most recent novel, The Clothes on Their Backs, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. She writes for The Guardian, The Telegraph, and Vogue.


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