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 …