Title: The Hiding Place

Author: Trezza Azzopardi

ISBN: 9780802138590
Pages: 288
Description: A finalist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, The Hiding Place — Welsh novelist Trezza Azzopardi’s lyrical tale of an immigrant family in Cardiff — has been compared to Frank McCourt’s bleak, stirring memoir Angela’s Ashes. But The Hiding Place need not “hide” behind any ready-made comparisons; Azzopardi’s astonishing, tension-filled debut stands assuredly on its own as a work of tremendous power and originality.

The Hiding Place is narrated by Dolores, the youngest of six daughters born to a Maltese immigrant father and a Welsh mother. With one hand permanently disfigured by a fire when she was only one month old — the hand is beautifully described by the author as “a closed white tulip standing in the rain; a cutoff creamy marble in the shape of a Saint; a church candle with its tears flowing down the bulb of wrist” — Dolores has always been treated as an outcast. Her father, Frankie Gauci, is an incorrigible gambler who bets “more than he can afford to lose.” On the day Dolores is born, he loses his half-share of a caf&eacute, as well as the apartment above it where his family lives. Everything in Frankie’s life is potential currency, including his family; he even sells his second-oldest daughter Marina to gangster Joe Medora in exchange for a house and money to pay off his debts. Dolores’s mother, Mary, is driven to the edge of insanity as she watches the world around her collapse, helpless to save even her children from her husband’s vices.

At times, The Hiding Place paints a phantasmagoric portrait of cruelty, but Trezza Azzopardi’s gracefully exacting prose saves her tale from becoming a shock-fest of the sort you would expect on daytime television talk shows. Azzopardi forges profundity through delicately interwoven double-sided images: rabbits that are the children’s playthings, until they are brutally slaughtered by their father; trunks, rooms, and cages that can either protect or ensnare; and most abundantly and most significantly, fire, which can warm as well as ravage. Even Dolores’s older sister Fran is sent away to a home for being a pyromaniac, craving risk like her father, “gambling on how hot, how high, on how long she can bear it.”

While some readers may wonder how Dolores is able to relate events that happened when she was so young, it is easy to associate these stories with the phantom pains she feels in her missing fingers, her ability to “miss something [she] never knew.” The story comes to us in a dreamlike tapestry, weaving together different times and perspectives. Consequently, the narrative is fragmented, leaving the reader with half-tellings, missing details, stories that unfold only in the retelling, and a sense that the only fact we can be certain of is the profound meaning she imparts through them. The Hiding Place is as much a portrait of a family’s destruction as it is an exploration of how memory bends and buckles under the weight of ruin, and how “blame can be twisted like a flame in draught; it will burn and burn.”

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