Monday, April 01, 2002

The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi

I want to talk to you this morning about yet another amazing debut novel. This one, by Trezza Azzopardi, is entitled The Hiding Place. I’m one of those fools who very often does judge a book by its cover and who buys because of flashy titles or irresistible jacket covers. Of course, I also take a quick look at the back to see who has reviewed the book and at least a bit of what they have said without risking the story-line. I am also almost irresistably drawn to what are called coming of age novels, although the truth is that many such novels are pretty bleak and almost unremittingly sad. All of the above is true of The Hiding Place; it had an irresistible cover and enough information on the front and back to convince me that the story would be an important one.

One reviewer says of the characters in the book that they are drawn so sharply that they bite. Just so. This is the story of a family of five girls, their desperate mother and their almost casually cruel and self-absorbed father. The entire story is told through the eyes of the youngest girl, Dolores, Dol for short. It begins a bit unconvincingly, since Dol is only about two years old, and yet telling us the story of her family as if she remembers it quite clearly. However, the patient reader will find out soon enough that this is a kind of collage, quite obviously put together by a much older Dol who is looking back, trying somehow to make sense of an impoverished and brutal childhood.

The story is about Maltese immigrants in Wales living in a section of town that is crumbling, half deserted. We know very little of either the mother or father except by way of reports from Dol, and her view is a kaleidoscopic one dancing from daughter to daughter. The girls range in age from the very young Dol to pretty girls in their early teens. What we do know about the father, Frankie, is that he cares for little other than gambling, and his constant dream is one of escape—escape back to Malta (now a romantic dream in his mind), or at least back to the sea and a life without children, without obligations. Such seems to be the dream of many of the poor Maltese men, while the dreams of the women who bear their children are simply of enough food to put on the table and of children who may someday be able to carve out lives not so desperately determined by the day to day struggle for food and shelter.

Frankie is worse than a non-provider; he manages to lose whatever he has earned, and too often to lose as well the meager scraps that his wife has managed to scrape together and to hide away for rent or food for the next day or two. No wonder the mother, Mary, is on the edge of sanity. The children are regarded by the locals as half-breeds, but despite their extreme poverty, at least some of the girls are pretty, and Frankie manages to gamble away even his daughters. The oldest he literally sells to another Maltese immigrant who has been luckier (and more ruthless) than he. He is able to excuse that transaction by believing that the man he sells his daughter to is really the girl’s father, thus he can punish his wife while buying himself out of his gambling debts. The next oldest daughter, Celesta, is desired by a man three times her age, and again Frankie rather casually arranges a marriage, and if it sickens him do to so, it is more because he resents adding to the possessions of the old man than out of real concern for his daughter.

Although we, as readers, do not see a great deal of the violence Frankie rains down on his wife and daughters, it is obvious enough that he rules by threats and physical force. In one instance we know that Mary, the wife, is in an upstairs bedroom, so battered that Frankie has had to call in the doctor.
My father shoots his eyes at me—terrible, warning looks that make me want to hide away—as if he’s guessed what I’m thinking about. He’s nervous about the doctor coming; he thinks he’ll be found out. I won’t tell—none of us will, not even Fran.
Fran, who is about ten, is about to be sent to a Home, because her reaction to her chaotic home life and the veil of violence hanging over it is to take some sort of control over her world, so uncontrollable at home. She finds her measure of control by burning down the abandoned buildings in her neighborhood.

I find myself telling you too much of the story, because I don’t know how else to describe or recommend to you this novel. Perhaps I am warning you at the same time that I recommend this book to you. In many ways, the experience of reading this novel is horrible. In fact one of my most trusted reader friends passed the book along to me because she simply had no desire to go on reading it. Her words, “I don’t like the father; I can’t quite believe the story. It’s sad and awful and I don’t know why I’m reading it.” Of course, we are not supposed to like the father and the lives of the girls and the mother are just what they seem to be, unbearable. So why write the book and why should we read it? I’m not sure I can answer either question convincingly. My deep sense is that the book was written as autobiography or very, very closely witnessed lives. Poverty and violence next of kin; poverty and madness are often intertwined; poverty and unhappiness are constant companions. We already know all of these things. Do we need to be reminded again? Yes, and especially if the person telling us has the skill and insight of Azzopardi.

This wonderful/awful little book never preaches; it simply describes, using time-warp as a tool for showing us whole lives while still restricting almost all of the told story to a few months, at most a year or two. Only at the very end do we get some clues as to how these emotionally and physically battered children turn out. And if there is any part of the book that seems a bit too neat, a bit out of synch, it is this last section. I suspect the author had to include this last part as her own way of making sense of what came before.

So, on a day when my friends in the Old Mole collective are talking of visions of the future, I am reviewing this bleak tale of the present and past. My only excuse is that I want always to talk to you of what I am reading now. I could have talked today of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, or of some other moderately hopeful view of the future. Instead, I have chosen to talk of this sad tale. I have to leave it to you as a reader to decide whether insights gained from reading it sufficiently compensate for the sadness of the story. Read it when you feel strong and when you can give it the concentrated reading it needs and deserves.

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