Little Girl

Patricia Beer

  • Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud
    Hamish Hamilton, 186 pp, £14.99, January 1992, ISBN 0 241 13179 0
  • Eve’s Tattoo by Emily Prager
    Chatto, 194 pp, £8.99, January 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3882 3
  • A Dubious Legacy by Mary Wesley
    Bantam, 272 pp, £14.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 593 02537 7

Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky started its career with two disadvantages. One was the title: it suggests whimsy, from which the book is in fact bracingly free. The phrase is explained and has real validity within the story itself, but should have been kept in its place. The second was the nature of the advance publicity, which seemed to have the bossy intention of providing the clef to the roman. There have been photographs of the Freud sisters at the launch party; they are the child heroines of the novel, we are told. Their mother is also present and her deportment described; apparently she is in the book too. It has been widely labelled as a semi-autobiographical novel, though in fact there is no such thing. And one reviewer comments approvingly that Esther Freud writes about what she knows; well, let us hope we all do that.

Over these disadvantages Hideous Kinky quickly triumphed. It is an impressive performance and not only as a first novel. As a novel, of course, it must be assessed, no matter what adjectives it may have picked up from the papers. It tells the story, then, of two English girls, aged seven and five, whose mother took them on the hippy trail to Morocco in the Sixties. The woman – ‘Mum’, as she is called with inaccurate cosiness’ – is calmly presented to the reader as a typical middle-class hippy of those years: irresponsible, self-indulgent, dishonest and not very bright; yet at the same time we are not openly invited to shake our fists or hiss.

Compare Dickens’s treatment of Mrs Jelly-by in Bleak House. As high-minded neglecters of their own children the two women resemble each other strongly. Mrs Jellyby’s project for Borrioboola-Gha is Mum’s pilgrimage to Marrakesh. One can hear Mrs Jellyby saying: ‘Forget London, man. Borrioboola-Gha, that’s where it’s at.’ Yet whereas Dickens, his co-narrator, most of his characters, and probably all his readers, thought she was dreadful, readers of Hideous Kinky who cannot help feeling that Mum is absurd and potentially dangerous may well be worrying that they could be small-minded, elderly and overly maternal. That is clever. That is how the Sixties used to make you feel.

We must not allow ourselves to be bullied, however. Somebody is trying to tell us – and fervently wishes us to know – that Mum (it may be part of the irony that as this is the only name we know her by we have to go on using it however unsuitably) is appalling. There is one sequence that chills the blood. Leaving her seven-year-old daughter Bea with some people she has only just met, she goes off with her younger daughter to the Azouia to become a Sufi. Week after week she stays away, not making the slightest attempt to communicate with Bea or enquire after her. The anxiety of the situation makes the narrator wet her bed every night. Mum, good-humouredly washing the sheets each morning, seems quite incapable of making any connection. When at last they get back to Marrakesh the slight acquaintances have long since left the town and Bea has disappeared. Mum is surprised and quite upset. Bea is soon found, however.

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