Trezza Azzopardi's mesmerising debut novel, the Booker-shortlisted The Hiding Place, chronicles the life of a Maltese immigrant family in 1960s Cardiff, Wales, and is a beautifully evocative tale that ignites memories of family, childhood, violence and poverty for one young woman.
Returning to Tiger Bay, Cardiff, for her mother's funeral, Dolores Gauci encounters her sisters for the first time in 30 years after Social Services disbanded them following their father Frankie's abandonment and their mother Mary's attempted suicide. For Dol, aged five when her family is splintered apart, memory is a broken glass pane--a jagged window into the past, permitting only a distorted view and sharp, painful images. Dol remembers the fire, as it licked and then devoured her arm; the rabbit's skin being peeled from flesh,; the self-inflicted scars on her sister's arms; her father's belt cutting into skin.
Sifting through the embers of her childhood, Dol desperately tries to rekindle a flame in her deadened family. Confronting ghosts past and present, she draws a palpable picture of a childhood long-forgotten. Sight, sound, smell and touch caress and burn the reader's senses. Azzopardi questions how Dol, a child at the time, can "remember" and casts into sharp relief the fallibility of the individual's perception of the world--seen from multiple perspectives, there can never be one truth. She revels in disorienting the reader by glimpsing the world from the most unusual, exhilarating angles:
"This is what happens just before I am born: It's 1960. My parents, Frankie and Mary, have five beautiful daughters."
Like an impressionist painter, the author can with just a few simple strokes bring a scene to vibrant life, whether it is the single girls in the bar who leave "the imprints of their bored thighs" remaining "awhile upon the shiny leatherette" or the matchless beauty of the descriptions of Dol's deformity: "a closed white tulip standing in the rain, a church candle with its tears flowing down the bulb of a wrist". Azzopardi's bright flame is sure to burn for a long time to come. --Nicola Perry