Vivien Kovacs, a sensitive, bookish girl grows up sealed off from the world by her timid Hungarian refugee parents, who conceal the details of their history and shy away from any encounter with the outside world. She learns how to navigate British society from an eccentric cast of neighbors -- including a fading ballerina, a cartoonist, and a sad woman who wanders the city and teaches Vivien to be beautiful. 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 uncle, a notorious criminal and slum landlord, who, in his old age, wants to share his life story. As he exposes the truth about her family's past Vivien learns how to be comfortable in her own skin and how to be alive in the world.
This was one of those, oh what to call it, calm ones, not slow, just silently being there. A story that just happens, but one I could not put down.
Vivien grows up in postwar London. Her parents are Hungarian immigrants who fled before the war broke out. She knows nothing about their past. She loves books, she loves clothes, and she does not want to be like them always inside, always careful. It's the story of her growing up.
But that is not the whole story. She is curious and she reaches out to the uncle her parents does not speak about. And the second story begins, the story about his life, and the life she did not know her dad had. And all those little things that makes sense now.
The story of life in Hungary could have been a story in itself. War, persecution, starvation. You name it. But then I liked Vivien and the flashbacks to that life. I liked the calm way it was told, fine, slow way it was told, but it's not slow! I did finish it in a day.
A well told story.
Paperback, 304 pages
Published May 1st 2009 by Virago Press (UK) (first published October 2nd 2008)