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To London With Only 'The Clothes On Their Backs'

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. A new book takes a look at the immigrant experience of Eastern Europeans in London. British journalist and novelist Linda Grant delves into the world of the Hungarian Jewish refugee community in her acclaimed new novel, "The Clothes on Their Backs."

As a journalist, Grant writes about trends in fashion. As a novelist, clothes play an important role in lives and identities of her characters. Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE: First generation Londoner, Vivien Kovacs, the main writer, is the ill-at-ease daughter of Hungarian immigrants. We see Vivien in childhood in the stuffy apartment where her timid parents established their new lives soon after they arrived from their native Hungary.

Grant beautifully dramatizes the tension between the generations. Her parents shield her from the life they put behind them when they arrived in Britain, keeping her from her Uncle Sandor. He's a notorious London slum lord who emigrated from Hungary after serving time in a Communist labor camp and who's also served time in a British prison.

Vivien, of course, resents being kept at arm's length from the past. After the accidental death of her young husband, she launches a feeble masquerade as a stranger. She approaches her uncle and takes on the job of helping him write his memoirs in the hopes of learning something more about her family history.

Uncle Sandor is a piece of work. A vividly drawn rough and tumble survivor. He goes along with Vivien's charade in order to make his story and the family's known to her.

Yes, I am Sandor Kovacs, it's me, Vivien eventually writes on his behalf, the one you read about, that terrible person. What she learns about him and her parents, the news about their difficult lives in Hungary and how they came to make their own ways in London changes her life and allows her over time to become the woman who can tell her own narrative - a first-generation British coming of age tale that blazes new trails in immigrant literature.

SIEGEL: "The Clothes on Their Backs" is the latest novel by writer and journalist Linda Grant. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University, and Alan has a new novel. It's called, "To Catch the Lightning." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.