Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 22, 2022

The Hiding Place, by Trezza Azzopardi

Well, I certainly did not plan to read another dark book with confronting themes, but I wanted to read something for Reading Wales 2022 hosted by Paula at BookerJotter via Booker Talk, and Trezza Azzopardi’s The Hiding Place was the only Welsh book I had on the TBR.  However, once I started reading the book I could not put it down, so once again I am beginning my review with a trigger warning:

If anything in this review raises issues for you,
help is available at White Ribbon Australia or your local support service.

 



Trezza Azzopardi (b.1961) emerged into the literary landscape with a rare accomplishment: The Hiding Place was her debut novel and it was shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize.  Debut novels are quite commonly shortlisted for major prizes here in Australia, but it doesn’t often happen with the Booker.  The Hiding Place also joined some very distinguished company when it won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 2001 and was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.  Since then Azzopardi has published four more novels: Remember Me, (2003);  Winterton Blue, (2007) and The Song House,  (2010) and The Tip of My Tongue (2013).

Karen at Booker Talk lists The Hiding Place among Welsh authors: 80 Books to inspire you and from there she links to this review which included Azzopardi’s novel in Wales Arts Review’s Greatest Welsh Novel’ series. I did not know any of this when I bought the book back in 2005 from the Readings Bargain Table.  I noticed the Booker shortlisting on its cover, and brought it home.

The Hiding Place defies any romanticised How Green was My Valley expectations you might have of Welsh writing.  Azzopardi was born in Cardiff to a Maltese father and a Welsh mother, and her novel is set in the underbelly of Cardiff — its docklands, where sailors came from all over the world and made use of the gambling dens, the clubs and the good-time girls. Sometimes these men fell for a local lass and stayed. Salvatore marries Carlotta and stays clear of the vice but makes the mistake of befriending and trusting Frankie…

Azzopardi doesn’t romanticise the Maltese community of the postwar era in this story of a dysfunctional family.  Frankie Gauci, aided and abetted by a bunch of gangsters and gamblers, is a monster who destroys his family: his wife Mary, and his six girls, Celesta, Marina, Rose, Fran, Luca and Dolores, the youngest.  Told through the eyes of Dolores, the story traverses the forties through to the sixties, beginning with her birth on the day when her father has gambled away his entire income — his half-share in Salvatore’s café, along with their home above it, and all the money they have.  His greatest regret, however, seems to be that he’s also lost his father’s ruby ring…

Dolores is brought home to sleep shut into a chest.

My mother told me how she wrapped me in a shawl at night and hid me from my father.

He would have smothered you, she said, without malice but with a strange sense of pride, as if I were a Rescue kitten she had taken in.  (p.5)

Culminating in a distorted family reunion after the mother’s death, the narration looks back on a childhood marred by poverty, violence, and fear. At the age of four and maimed in a careless fire, Dolores’ has an imperfect understanding of what she sees and hears but the reader can understand how things are:

My mother’s laugh below and the chink of a bottle reminds me I am on lookout.  He’s loping down the street, almost home, and I run to whisper in my mother’s ear.  Eva drags her coat off the chair, pockets the bottle of rum, and moves to the back door.  She lifts the latch and lets herself out.  The air is frosty.  My mother breaks off some blackened parsley from a pot next to the step, and folds it into her mouth.

Go upstairs now, Dol, and do your puzzle, she says.  I must keep out of my father’s way.  (p.6)

Mary manages to protect Dol from being smothered, but overwhelmed by one disaster after another, she can’t protect her other children.

Today, Docklands in Melbourne, London and plenty of other places around the world are sites for posh retail and hospitality venues, marinas for expensive boats, and luxurious glass and steel apartment towers.  It was a different world when Azzopardi wrote this shocking novel, but I doubt that human nature has changed.  It’s just moved to somewhere else…

Author: Trezza Azzopardi
Title: The Hiding Place
Publisher: Picador, 2000
ISBN: 9780330480413, pbk.,282 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings in 2005, $10.00

 


Responses

  1. Oh, this sounds a bit bleak… but yes, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that waterside / dockland areas were so rough and dangerous. I still think some of the redevelopments I’ve seen (I’m thinking Melbourne and Dublin) are pretty sterile and dull, though.

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    • The London one more so, I think. OTOH the one in Lisbon (which isn’t called Docklands) is stunning, and the difference is in the architecture which is really creative, not just boring boxes with bits stuck on for embellishment.
      PS I am going to choose something more light-hearted for my next book!

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      • I actually love London Docklands… probably because it is just so different from the rest of the city. I also love the architecture and the way the self-driving train wends it’s way through those buildings. The station names are wonderful too, alluding to the original history of the place.

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        • I don’t remember if the train was self-driving!

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          • Taking visitors on that train was always my favourite thing to do!

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  2. I read this around the time it came out and remember being so impressed. I also read Remember Me which I thought was good, but for me it didn’t quite have the same spark as this debut.

    I find the London Docklands regeneration quite desolate and eerie. I’ve lived in the city my whole life and only been there a handful of times.

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    • I was interested to see at Goodreads that there are unanswered questions about possible autobiographical elements, and the last book The Tip of My Tongue is about a child from a fractured family—the mother dies and she has to go and live with posh relations. Another of her books involves fragments of childhood memories too. I think it would be interesting to read them all, but I suspect that it would take some emotional stamina to do it.

      In 2005, when The Spouse and I visited the London museum at Docklands we found it largely empty of people… you can see how empty it was in the photo on my travel blog. https://hillfamilysoutherndivision.wordpress.com/2005/12/29/london-museum-at-docklands-2-10-05/

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the mention Lisa. This is one of the many books by Welsh au5ors I have yet to read. It would make a good companion read to The Fortune Men which is set in the same part of Cardiff and based on a true story) . Thst doesn’t end well though (the main character is executed for murder so maybe. not such a good choice :)

    That part of Cardiff has been partly redeveloped with the usual mix of bars/restaurants plus the HQ of the Welsh government and a theatre. Some elements from the past remain though.

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    • I’ve got the Fortune Men on the TBR, but I hadn’t realised it was Welsh. It drives me crazy when the online presence just records nationality as British rather than specifying Scotland, Wales, NI, or England…

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  4. […] The Hiding Place, by Trezza Azzopardi – ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]

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  5. I think I have this in the 746 actually, but didn’t realise that the author was Welsh. One to get in the right frame of mind for I think.

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  6. I’ve had this on my shelves since it was published: time to get ’round to it, obviously!

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    • Hi Marcie, I’m always fascinated by the way some books by mid-level writers make it round the world and into our bookshops… the famous ones always get here, and to you too, I’d guess, but ones like this intrigue me. It’s different now because the internet tells us more than we want to know about lots of different lit prizes and we are bombarded with marketing, but back in 2000 we were still relying on the gatekeepers. Speaking for myself, I knew what won the Booker, (though not from our media which didn’t ever report book news, and rarely does so now.) But I had no way of knowing what was on the shortlists or longlists. What, I wonder, made our booksellers pick up on this shortlisted book about poverty in Wales by a debut writer and think that it would sell in international markets?

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  7. Sounds like something I’d “like” to read – because of its Welsh connection. I’m embarrassed that despite my own Welsh connection I’ve read no Welsh literature for decades – and I’d love to gain more of an understanding of the place physically and historically. I should get on board with Paula’s month.

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    • Don’t feel guilty, Welsh lit really hasn’t had much of a profile until recently and it hasn’t been easy to know about what’s available. That’s partly why I wanted to review this one, even though it’s probably out of print by now.
      PS Karen at Booker Talk has a page about Welsh writing, which helped me identify a couple of books that I’d tagged British because I didn’t know any better.

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      • Yes, thanks Lisa, you are right but I always feel silly about knowing more about every other part of UK and Ireland, except the part closest to me!

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