The Hiding Place
Atlantic Monthly Press
IN PERHAPS HIS most famous poem, Philip Larkin indelicately sums up familial relationships as: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They do not mean to, but they do." This dark insight permeates The Hiding Place, Trezza Azzopardi's elliptical, atmospheric debut novel. Told through the child's eyes of Delores Gauci, the youngest in a large family of Maltese immigrants living in Cardiff, Wales, the novel evokes how families stumble over secrets and lies. Intent on preserving the memory of her family, however painful, Delores becomes a sort of narrator-cum-sleuth. Yet as she avidly trawls the past, her family seemingly dissolves before her eyes.
Like Annie Enright's recent novel What Are You Like?, The Hiding Place portrays the pull of family ties with a beguiling ease. When we first meet Delores, she cowers in fear from her father Frankie, a dreamer and a drunk who gambles away the family's rent money, its share in a business, and two of his own daughters. When he loses, which is often, Frankie belts his girls about the kitchen, decorating their olive skin with bruises and scrapes. Delores bears the brunt of his neglect. After she suffers third-degree burns in an accident, her sisters silently shelter the small girl, whose gnarled stump of a hand reminds their father of his frequent failures.
Though it proceeds episodically, The Hiding Place weaves a compelling tapestry of family life, showing how abject circumstances can represent a mixed blessing. Languishing beneath their father's financial and physical tyranny, the Gauci daughters develop a complicated camaraderie. Fran, who answers her father's abuse by covering herself with tattoos, teaches Delores how to look tough. Rose, the tattler in the lot, makes Delores feel brave. Dissatisfied and complicit in her husband's rages, Mrs. Gauci does not always shield her daughters, and as a result hastens the family's breakup.
Over the course of the novel Frankie's shortcomings mount: He steals, cheats, and plays loosely with the hearts of his family. We are hardly surprised when Azzopardi shuttles him offstage. After he disappears and her mother dies, Delores embarks on an odyssey into the past. In the novel's second section, presumably set in the present day, she returns home to unravel the mysteries Azzopardi has so craftily spun.
In the end, while we sympathize with Delores's need for grace, this novel accommodates such a yearning too willingly. What if there is no redemption from our own biographies? What if, in old age, Larkin's wisdom prevails, and we fail to liberate ourselves from the past? A proficient and stylish novel, The Hiding Place might have perhaps attained greatness if it dared to ponder these unsettling questions.