Hideous Kinky begins as a small, cheerful, autobiographical novel following the Thurber variation on Wordsworth: “Humor is emotional chaos recollected in tranquillity.” In the mid-Sixties two girls, aged five and seven, travel with their mother from London, where “there were a lot of people waiting to be given mantras,” to Marrakech. They are accompanied by John, their mother’s boyfriend, and Maretta, John’s wife.
The novel’s title is the only phrase Maretta has spoken in the sisters’ hearing, and the words are among the sisters’ favorites, the source of an occasional chant, game, or judgment: “One of the shepherds whistled and the dogs slunk to the ground. Bea raised an eyebrow as she passed me. ‘Hideous kinky,’ she whispered.” Esther Freud’s vocabulary and tone veer easily from the childlike for her younger, unnamed self—“he’d magicked a sweet…out of a pipe for me”—to the more sophisticated, when she is recounting dialogue or circumstances beyond a child’s comprehension.
One senses, beneath the surface, Mum and John’s exhilaration, silliness, and desperation as they try to get to Tangier. When the van breaks down, John stares commandingly at the engine: “‘Actually, I haven’t a clue what I’m doing,’ he said eventually, and he and Mum began to giggle.” Esther Freud’s account of the rising tension is deceptively simple:
“Maretta would you like some soup?”
She turned her face away.
My mother’s hand began to tremble. It made the spoon rattle on the tin side of the bowl as she stretched it out to her.
“Well, all the more for us,” she said finally, pouring the soup back into the pot. Her voice was high and tight. Maretta smiled serenely.
A truck roared by. A wave of hot and cold laughter swept over me and I bit my lip and stirred my spoon noisily.
The girls end up alone with their mother in Marrakech. While Mum hooks up with various men and pursues spirituality, the children, particularly the older sister, bossy and conformist Bea, want nothing more than to be normal. Or at least not to be so embarrassed by their mother’s fervor for Islam: “‘Oh Mum, please….’ I was prepared to beg. ‘Please don’t be a Sufi.”’
Hideous Kinky has more sweetness than many novels written from childhood memory. Mum’s amateurish attempts at Islam are nothing like the fearsome mother’s morning prayers in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit:
Not for her the meek and paschal Lamb, she was out there, up front with the prophets, and much given to sulking under trees when the appropriate destruction didn’t materialise. Quite often it did, her will or the Lord’s I can’t say….
But Winterson’s is a coming-of-age novel, and there is perhaps more scope in the adolescent’s voice and experience—that mixture of self-involvement and despair in Holden Caulfield’s “People are always ruining things for you.” It is unusual for a writer to attempt the voice of a very young child; Laura Cunningham does so in her novel Sleeping Arrangements, capturing the child’s misapprehension and anxiety after her mother’s death, as her uncle explains why their mirrors are covered by bedsheets. “If I lift the sheet, do I die instantly, then join Rosie? I half expect, if I raise the cover, I will see her, smiling, in the glass. But what if it’s not true?” The present-tense narrative is, however, combined with an adult’s perspective: “But even then, at eight, I’m skeptical enough to suspect that I could die and be dispatched to a separate place.”
Esther Freud undertakes a more difficult task—to create the unformed consciousness of a five-year-old without relying on an older narrator. The author uses simple language and syntax, as when Bea shows her sister her new Arabic schoolbook:
“Are you going to learn to read in Arabic?” I asked Bea in amazement.
“Yes,” she said. “I already know that you have to start from the right of the page.”
I bowed my head. I wished I knew what side that was.
Yet she immediately sees something incongruous about the book. Spotting an illustration of a girl with blonde hair, “I leafed through for an orange one. ‘Why are all the people dressed in English clothes?”’ On the whole Esther Freud sustains this rather difficult tone, though she is less assured in the slightly overblown descriptive passages that occasionally end chapters: “I turned around. The sun was a smouldering crescent, lying on the edge of the world…. We sat shivering and watched the sun sink, giving up the sky to a moon that had hovered high since late afternoon, waiting for its chance of glory.”
In Hideous Kinky people appear and disappear with little reason or explanation, as in the child’s first sight of the local fixer, Akari the Estate Agent. “When I woke up I was sitting in Mum’s lap in a tiny white room. Mum was talking in French to a small, plump man who smiled when he spoke and clapped his hands together and laughed at the end of every sentence.” Esther Freud’s description of the girls’ short-lived peahen is witty and curious rather than sentimental: “Bea held her arms tight around the black hen…. ‘I’ll name her Snowy,’ she said. ‘Like in Tintin.’ I leant over and stroked the top of Snowy’s head with one finger. Her round orange eyes darted about like fireflies.” But the bird is too much at home at the Hotel Moulay Idriss, and Mum enlists Akari’s help: ” ‘I will look after her. Very special,’ he beamed as he hurried down the corner stairs. We refused to return his smile. ‘Like hell,’ Bea said under her breath.”
Though most of the characters are differentiated only by one outstanding feature or characteristic, Bilal, the itinerant builder and magician’s apprentice who becomes one of Mum’s lovers, is more complex. The narrator loves and trusts him from the start and is anxious to follow through with his plan to teach the girls acrobatics: ” ‘People will love to see the English children do the tricks.’ Bilal’s eyes sparkled. ‘We will have a crowd as big as the Hadaoui and we will collect many coins.’ ” He is more often, however, given to the opaque gesture, or silence (preferable to stretches of broken English). When the child asks if he will eventually come back to England with them, “Bilal closed his eyes and began to hum along with Om Kalsoum, whose voice crackled and wept through a radio in the back of the café.”
Dressed in caftans, the sisters wander around in disguise, watched over by the local Fool. Bea is soon doing the family shopping, haggling for the best prices at the market, and even going to school. At the end of her first day, she breathlessly describes disciplinary measures:
“The teacher beat her until the stick broke, and then when the stick broke everyone was very happy, and then a boy from the school next door who is her favourite boy brought over a new stick.”
“My God.” Mum put her head in her hands.
“Are you going to go again tomorrow?” I asked.
“Of course.” Bea was adamant.
Hideous Kinky is curiously divided. The first half is an amusing lark: a bohemian Englishwoman in search of adventure drags her children to a strict Muslim land where she goes through a series of men and finds religion. Her daughters explore Marrakech, picking up the language and even passing themselves off early on as beggar girls. In 1960s fashion, Mum gives her five-and seven-year-olds some hash—
“Please, please,” we insisted. “Majoun, majoun, majoun,” and we set up a chant rising in volume with every refrain.
“Shhh,” Mum tried to quiet us, frantic, but giggling herself. “All right you can share a piece, but for God’s sake be quiet about it.”
—and lets them wander off on their own. The family’s only real worries are about money, and these are soon cured by the arrival of the next bank draft.
But with the second half the novel turns melancholy, Mum’s religious fervor becomes less charming, more selfish. Rather than be uprooted once more and go off on a pilgrimage to a mosque, Bea challenges Mum, asking to be left behind with an English family they barely know. ” ‘I never thought she’d say yes,’ Bea had whispered to me.” Mum and the narrator hitchhike to Algiers and end up on a narrow road up a steep mountain. Another truck, transporting sheep, descends, and the drivers both try to navigate the road:
I listened with burning ears for the slide of our wheels slipping off the road. Mum pulled me to the back of the truck. I held on to her and prepared to jump…
I had forgotten how to breathe. I gasped, my mouth open, sucking and swallowing the air into my chest. My chest ached…. I wanted to lie down and go to sleep. A fat, white sheep watched me with concern. I held its liquid eye as it moved slowly past until with a loud blast of the horn our truck pulled free and screeched into the middle of the road.
When they eventually return to Marrakech, Mum is frantic. Bea has disappeared. Not having wanted to follow the English family to the country, she has ended up at “the polio school” run by a strict Englishwoman. This sounds extreme, but Esther Freud avoids melodrama by focusing on the relationship between the two sisters as the younger one tries to persuade Bea to come home:
“I like it here,” she said. “It’s like being at boarding-school.”
“Have you ever been at boarding-school?”
I was losing track of what Bea had and hadn’t done…. I tried to think of something else to say. Everything in my head was jumbled and arguing.
Even when the family is reunited and Bilal returns, the idyll is over. Local rituals and customs no longer charm—“I didn’t like to think about the camel festival. The camel, garlanded in flowers, had collected us from our house in the Mellah, and we had followed it out of the city and high into the mountains in a procession of singing.” The parade ends, however, with the beheading of the animal. And the sisters witness the beating of their shadow, the harmless Fool: “Occasionally I looked at Bea to see if she was running over those events like I was, the sound effects living their own life behind her eyes, but she gave nothing away.”
Hideous Kinky is a novel less about an exotic country seen through an innocent’s eyes than about family, about having a deeply embarrassing mother, an older sister who does everything before you, and about longing for a father. It escapes sentimentality by its simplicity: “Bilal was my Dad. No one denied it when I said so.” The author, her sister, and her mother spent two years in Morocco, but while Esther Freud may not have invented her subject, she has recreated the memory with a light touch and delicate irony.