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.

The tone of the book is set to be resolutely tolerant. Freud has protected the character of Mum from anything judgmental in several ways: one is by pushing the children in front of her like hostages. They are sweet, especially the younger one. Bea is shadowed by her understanding of their circumstances. And they are shown as being attached to their mother in spite of her embarrassing antics with prayer mats and lovers. She does not represent much in the way of security; even when they are all three on the journey home they cannot relax in case, in her unfettered way, she should jump off at the next station. But she is all the security they will experience for some time. They are disarming. It is like what happens when some crazed evangelist knocks at one’s door: if he is accompanied by two small daughters who look up at him uncritically one goes off to fetch the Appletise rather than the Alsatian.

This is artful enough, but the handling of the narration is a tour de force of artfulness. The point of view is that of the five-year-old girl. She is an unusually intelligent child, with a mental age already far in advance of, say, Adrian Mole’s and Holden Caulfield’s (perhaps a hippy upbringing does work), but the actual narrative clearly had to be entrusted to her older self. This would hardly need to be said if the author had not created a disconcertingly strong illusion that the child really is the writer.

This is achieved partly by the quality of the observation. When a van in which the family, along with friends of the moment, is travelling, draws up at the Spanish port of embarkation, ‘there was a tapping on the glass. We sat very still and John rolled down the window, letting in a blast of cold and salty air and a whiskery face with bright blue eyes.’ This sounds like the authentic memory of a child, and it could have happened anywhere. The adult narrator probably put the salt into the air. Esther Freud’s sensitive grasp of what a child would or would not notice and remember spares us from any kind of description for description’s sake. Apart from the occasional sunset there is no fine writing. Everything is geared to the story, however vestigial it may be. ‘Almost before we lost sight of Spain, Morocco began to appear at the other end of the boat. A long flat shadow across the water.’ Morocco is not the subject of a word-picture. It is where they are going. Yet I have seldom been left at the end of a book with such a complete vision of a foreign country.

In the ramshackle months that follow, mostly in Marrakesh, with their poverty, un-orthodoxy, perpetual restlessness and sudden strange pleasures, the child’s viewpoint continues to dominate. When two Arabs burst into their room one night, each ‘making a circle with his thumb and index finger and pointing through it with his other hand’, she registers the gesture with the calm precision I have just quoted. Her mother is outraged – rather inconsistently given her free and easy lifestyle, if that is not too concrete a word – and Bea giggles knowingly. Beside them the younger child’s inexperience has a sort of authority. Her conscious presence is certainly necessary to the story. When she goes to sleep on her mother’s lap the action stops till she wakes up again.

The language of the narrative is that of a fluent, unaffected adult. The youth of the child is established by another technique: the suspension of the normal rules of composition. Characters introduced quite grippingly are never seen again. Others appear without any context and do not affect such plot as there is in the least. Dave, the man who poked his head into the van, did have some influence on the action: he made the van turn back. But the next day he was not there and the van was allowed to go forward again. The adults exchanged looks but the child did not understand, and as a matter of fact neither did I. In Morocco, after the mother’s affair with an obviously phoney Italian prince, she and the children cannot find him anywhere. This is not too surprising, but they cannot find his house either, which is very unnerving indeed – and never explained.

There is one character above all the rest who endorses the tone of mellowness and charity which in spite of everything pervades the book, and that is Bilal, a travelling acrobat who is picked up by Mum in the square, soon after the prince and his house have taken themselves off. He is a very attractive invention; not that he is anybody’s fantasy, but there is something magical about him from the start. Instead of going away and returning, which he frequently does, he seems to fade away and materialise again. He moves in with the family and they all love him, especially the five-year-old who is actively and consciously in search of a father.

‘Bee-lal.’ I said, drawing out the sound of his name. We were walking home hand in hand.

‘Yes.’

‘Am I your little girl?’

There was a long pause.

‘Yes,’ he said finally and he squeezed my hand very tight.

There is a sad scene when the family at last leaves for England. Bilal comes to the railway station and the little girl hopes to the last that he will travel with them, though she half-knows that he is the genius loci and could not materialise in London. But the revels are ended and as the train moves out he vanishes into thin air.

The title of Emily Prager’s novel, Eve’s Tat-too, brings to mind – the middle-aged mind, that is – the goody-goody Edwardian stories which prevailed in many homes well into the century: Teddy’s Button, Christie’s Old Organ, Little Meg’s Children, Since those days I have always distrusted a possessive title, feeling sure that the book was going to be edifying. In this case I was right. Prager’s subject is the Holocaust, and we are in for a sermon. I understand that she has been accused of exploiting the Holocaust, but that is not true. She seems, on the contrary, to be rebuking those who do exploit it.

At any rate Eve shows up in a very poor light. She and most of her friends were born after the Second World War and the Holocaust means nothing to most of them: ‘You know, I couldn’t care less about the Nazis. It’s ancient history. I couldn’t give a fuck.’ This point of view goads Eve on her 40th birthday to be tattooed on the arm with the camp number of an Auschwitz victim whose photograph she had come across and kept, and whom she calls Eva. This hysterical reaction, accurately described by her friends as ‘some midlife crisis’ and ‘a bizarre over-identification’, she backs up by a series of stories, which are fitted into the narrative with oddly Pickwickian effect. Each story is aimed at a different audience and each gives a different background and surname to Eva. They are simplistic stories, drawn from some foul kitty of Nazi atrocities and it is a wonder that anybody is influenced by them, but a great many people are. An aggressive roomful of Smokers Anonymous announces that next to that story their own problem ‘seems like bullshit’. A literary gathering responds with cries of ‘Jesus’ and ‘How about a book?’ Poor Uncle Jim, who has Aids and gets the worst story of all, just sits in silence and nods.

The last story but one Eve tells in hospital to two nuns who are preparing her for the operating theatre after she has been run over. It is impossible to suspend disbelief about this one, not so much because of its content (though it is suspicious that the goodies have suddenly become Catholics) but because of the circumstances of its telling. The nuns listen spellbound, neglecting their job, and a doctor has to come from the theatre to hurry them up. The final story – something like the truth at last – reveals who Eva actually was, and a queasy realism sets in.

These stories provide a strong, though too obtrusive, structure for the book, but in between the supporting columns there is infill that contains much goo and rubble. The love story is contrived and unconvincing. The writing can sag alarmingly: when Eve says ‘Oh hi, Dad’ on the telephone there is really no need for the author to add: ‘It was her father.’ Some sequences are clearly meant to bring the whole question of anti-semitism to a conclusion – for example, Eve’s long conversation with the old Jewish transvestite who appears especially for the purpose. But they are incoherent, and so is the moral when it finally arrives.

It is almost as if Prager was trying not to sound heartless. Anyone who has read her story ‘The Lincoln-Pruitt Anti-Rape Device’ will know what a very cool eye she can cast on life and death. But when people try to sound caring they usually sound soulful, and so too often in Eve’s Tattoo does she. This is a pity – we have several reminders of how wonderfully uncaring she can be. The description of the literary party is brilliant, and fortunately there is a whole chapter of it. I particularly liked the ‘clump of treelike editors’, all three of whom had cheated on their wives while they were pregnant, but had then garrulously found themselves when the babies were born.

It is to these three men and anyone else within earshot that Eve tells the story about the particular Eva who was an obstetrician: she worked in situations of great danger to help women in defiance of the Nazi laws about child-bearing and paid the price for it in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The men really perked up when they heard the word ‘obstetrician’. ‘They all knew obstetricians and had worked with them in delivery rooms.’

Before I read anything by Mary Wesley I assumed she was a latterday Angela Thirkell, clanking with snobbery and gentility, and creating middle-class characters of Victorian morals and feudal manners, who lived in large country houses and were attended by threateningly common peasants. What misled me was the sheepish look on the faces of intellectuals as they admitted they enjoyed Wesley’s work: so exactly what happened in Thirkell’s day. The defence in both cases was that she wrote such engrossing stories.

In this respect A Dubious Legacy, Mary Wesley’s latest novel, is well up to what I now know is her usual standard. It is not whole-some enough to be called a good yarn, I am glad to say, but it is absorbingly readable. The story covers roughly the last fifty years. It is not a very long book, so time has to go by at a good pace, though it slows up reverently as it nears the deathbed. Three generations appear with a speed which can cause confusion, but this is not a serious criticism.

Whatever misled me about Wesley, I was not wholly wrong about One thing: the presence of class-consciousness in the books. The hero of A Dubious Legacy, Henry Tillotson, does live in a large country house, Cotteshaw, just as I had imagined. At the start of the story it is being run with the utmost competence and poise by Pilar, a Spaniard whose husband died fighting Franco and whose chief ambition, which she eventually achieves, is to go back home and spit on Franco’s grave. She is short, dark and triangular in shape: a peasant and content to be so. I cannot help feeling that there is some condescension towards her; it is certainly allowed to seem odd that a woman like her should hold such a position. As to the moral, there is none, unless it is the old saw: ‘It’s a wise child that knows its own father.’ Four of the characters, at least, in quite a small cast, do not know theirs. We know that Henry is the father of two of them, their mothers being Barbara and Antonia, boringly conventional friends of his, as are their husbands. But he is not blamed. The women are warmly inviting, and in the case of Barbara, whose husband’s pollen count, as she puts it, is low, his intervention is a godsend.

The most arresting character is Margaret, wife of Henry. She is not mad, just insanely self-centred, and she is no purple-faced Mrs Rochester: she is beautiful. At the time of her arrival at Cotteshaw she took to her bed and from then on left it only occasionally, though the occasions were memorable. Henry’s unbelievable patience with her would be admirable if it were not balanced by his unbelievable irresponsibility, disguised as filial obedience, in marrying her in the first place. Perhaps her finest moment is when Antonia and Barbara have simultaneously gone into labour in the front hall, as a result of seeing Margaret, in one of her rare sallies, throw Antonia’s older child into the lake. As they lie groaning, with everybody dashing about trying to cope, Margaret stands statuesquely on the stairs, demanding that her tea be brought up to her. Some years later she is drowned. The lake at Cotteshaw is not underused.