Trezza Azzopardi was born in Cardiff.
She studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and is currently a lecturer there.
Her acclaimed first novel, The Hiding Place (2000), is the story of a Maltese family living in Cardiff during the 1960s. It won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction). The book was also adapted for BBC Radio 4's 'Book at Bedtime' and has been translated into 14 languages. Her second novel, Remember Me (2004), centres on 72-year-old Lilian (also known as Winnie), a homeless woman, in search of her stolen possessions and her troubled past.
Trezza Azzopardi lives in Norwich. Her most recent novel is The Song House (2010).
In Trezza Azzopardi's novel, The Hiding Place (2000), we meet the ultimate in the dysfunctional family, the husband and wife Frankie and Mary Gauci and their six daughters Celesta, Marina, Fran, Rose, Luca and Dolores.
Frankie is Maltese and lands at the port of Tiger Bay in Cardiff in the 1950s, joining an already growing Maltese community there. Frankie takes on many guises in the novel, none of them good. He goes from inarticulate newly-arrived immigrant, to smooth businessman-made-good, grovelling miscreant, wife and child abuser, gambling addict, serial adulterer, thief, animal slaughterer, disloyal friend and murderer. Though he possesses an animal slyness, he is clearly not an intelligent or well- educated person, given to questioning his own behaviour. What little sense of remorse he has about giving away his daughter Marina is placated by the excuse that he is not her real father, an occasional stab of guilt about his other daughters results in his 'setting his mind' on his eldest daughter. 'He will do what he can for her: the rest of us will have to wait' - his lack of imagination means that he cannot concern himself with more than one girl at a time. He is briefly nauseated at giving his beautiful teenage daughter Celesta in marriage to a physically grotesque older man, but this feeling is quickly quelled by the idea that he is 'a Good Match'. Just what makes Frankie such a foul character is only hinted at, but Azzopardi's depiction of Frankie is totally honest and straightforward and she makes no concessions to mitigating circumstances or sentimentality.
Mary, Frankie's wife, is a complex character. She is not Maltese and of her background we know only that she has escaped to Cardiff from a brutal father only, as many psychologists would point out, to select a similarly cold and abusive mate. Despite her name, Mary is a flesh and blood character, not the kind of on-a-pedestal Holy Mother figure that we see in books like Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. She neglects her baby daughter, causing her to get badly burnt, she is unable to prevent her husband from giving her daughter Marina away, though she suffers painfully for this, she swears and slaps her children, she fails (under the possibly misguided notion that she is protecting her) to send her daughter Dol to school, and yet is also unable to shield her from the bullying of her cruel older sisters. We know little about Mary's appearance (the only description we have is when she is dressed up for her daughter's wedding) but hints in the book make us imagine that she has something (beauty, vulnerability, sex-appeal, perhaps) that brings out compassion in men like Martineau, Mr Jackson and Salvatore. Tiny hints are given that Mary might be promiscuous: we are never given the full story of why, or whether Joe Fedora was Marina's father (whether it was rape or true love - we are told in the book that this is simply something that Mary does not want to think about). We are not sure, until the end of the novel, exactly what Mary was doing with Martineau when her baby daughter got burnt, but we suspect that she may have been paying the rent in kind, the rent money having been squandered by her husband.
Although the novel abounds with rich physical descriptions, of the Moonlight Restaurant, the house where the family lives, the area that Fran patrols when out committing acts of arson, we are given few details of how Mary feels, what she thinks and how she deals with the day to day problems of poverty. At one point, when she finishes up in a state of confusion at the Salvation Army Hostel, we are told that the girl there knows her because 'Mary brings her children here on Sundays when there's no food at home' and this short phrase reminds us with a jolt that Mary has had to face pain, disloyalty, loneliness, domestic violence and poverty on an almost daily basis. Is it any wonder that she ends up psychologically damaged?
Each of the six daughters in the family deals with poverty and abuse in a different way. Marina is sent to Malta early in the book, though her ghost-like presence pervades the novel. Celeste marries a physically unappealing older man and, true to her businesslike instinct of self-preservation (as early as age eleven she is 'going on forty') even convinces herself that she is fond of him. Fran turns to arson: the descriptions of the excitement in her eyes when she is involved in fire lighting activities are some of the most disturbing in the book and unnervingly echo the feelings of excitement that her father feels when he is about to place a bet or commit a crime. ('She is so like our father' comments Dol perceptively). She is eventually taken away to a children's home where she turns to self-mutilation in the form of tattoos. Meanwhile, Rose and Luca amuse themselves by bullying their younger sister Dol.
Dol, the abbreviated form of Dolores (it is perhaps no coincidence that the name comes from the word meaning pain), is the youngest of the children, and much of the novel is narrated through her eyes. Dol is a great disappointment to her family: not only is she not the longed-for boy that her father so desired, but soon after her birth she is involved in a fire that leaves her with a withered arm, little hair and a scarred face. Yet, what Dol lacks in physical perfection she makes up for in the detail of her vision, for she possesses a childlike but highly pictorial and sometimes comic imagination. When her sister burns down the local shop for example she sees the place with 'the back room in flames, with shelves collapsing down on each other and the brownness of it all colouring to a hot rich red; Mr Evans' pinny going up like the title sequence of Bonanza …'
Azzopardi enters perfectly into the psyche of a child when Dol speaks: her acceptance of her physical disability and the bullying of her older sisters are a fact of life to her, for she has never known anything different. This does not mean that she does not mind having only one arm - she spends much time looking at it in the mirror, and is pleased when a photographer manages to catch her without showing the 'bad' arm. Likewise, though she is strangely resigned to the bullying of her sisters, it still terrifies her. She does not however in the first part of the novel ponder the injustice of her situation or question the motives of what people do to her. It is only later, when she returns to Cardiff as an adult, that she begins to think through the terrible things that have scarred her emotionally as well as physically.
The physical and moral degeneration of the family would be desolate, were it not for the warmth and compassion of many of the minor characters. Salvatore and his wife are examples of Maltese immigrants who have worked hard to make a good life for themselves. One feels they are the necessary antidote to the abusive Frankie and the sinister gangster underworld that he inhabits though, alas, as in all good stories, Sal's ingenuousness and gullibility mean he is unable to see evil motives in others and his lack of understanding of Frankie's treachery eventually leads to his unfortunate demise.
Eva, the brassy blonde of dubious morals (Mary's neighbour Mrs Jackson will not have her in the house) is the classical example of the 'tart with the heart of gold'. Although common and vulgar, she gives sound, down to earth advice and moral support to Mary and offers physical support to the children when their parents disappear. Interestingly, she is one of the characters who has fared best at the end of the novel.
It is the simplicity and economy of Azzopardi's narrative that makes her such a great storyteller. The novel is divided into two roughly equal parts - the narrative about the girls' childhood and Dol's description of her return to Cardiff after her mother's death, and her discovery of what has become of the area and of the sisters she has not seen for many decades. The first part of the novel alone could have filled a 700 page epic, but Azzopardi selects, and distils what she has to say, hinting at things deeper and unsaid as she goes along, enriching her text as much with what she leaves out as what she chooses to describe. We are not given detailed descriptions of Frankie's violence for example, we simply know that the children are terrified of him by the way they flinch when he takes off his belt: 'Fran knows the best way to behave in these moments. We all do. She stays absolutely motionless, taking small sips of air through her mouth'. When we see what Frankie is capable of doing to a baby rabbit, we tremble to think of what further crimes of violence he might have been capable of inflicting on his family. It is only towards the end of the novel that we find out just how far his cruelty to his youngest daughter went.
Azzopardi rarely makes social or political comments. She does not question how a man brought up a Catholic can be so unchristian to his children, the coldness of the nun in the children's home who refers to Fran as 'the child' rather than by her name, or the fact that the social worker Lizzie Preece is generous in body but mean in spirit. Like a cameraman reporting from a war zone, she merely recounts what she sees, her suggestions of immorality are vague and implicit rather than openly expressed and she leaves her reader to form his own conclusions. The end of the novel is pitiless. How we would have enjoyed a happy reunion, with the sisters having made something of their lives despite the poor start. There is a reunion of sorts, some of the characters have made the best of a bad thing (Dol, and one might say to a certain degree, Celesta), and there are hints of a better future in the kindness of Dol's nephew, but there is also the final revelation of just how badly Frankie treated Dol and what has happened to Fran, outcomes that it would be cruel to reveal to those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading this tragic but sensitive and superbly written novel.
Amanda Thursfield, 2003