esther freud, ‘hideous kinky’ (1992)


I read Hideous Kinky over two days in a brief heatwave one week in early July, laying out on the grass in Kelvingrove Street Square, batting away greenflies and spotifying Om Kalthoum, drunken in the high-afternoon sun. It’s one of my most enduring memories from this summer — the summer of Commonwealth invasion and public transport diversions, the summer of sleeping until noon and walks home from work along empty, darkening roads. A perfect reading experience: the right book at the right time in just the right frame of mind.

Sometime (we infer) in the 1960s, a young restless single mother seeking experience and meaning decants her two young daughters from London to Morocco. The story takes the family from their arrival in this foreign dreamland, through almost a year of acculturation, and Mum’s affair with local entertainer Bilal, whose energy and easy warmth the girls take to immediately. Though subtly structured in the traditional style, the novel reads more as a series of vivid impressions: of the people, spectacles, and sensual reality of life in the Medina (Marrakesh’s labyrinthine Old Town). The spiritualist street conjuring of the Hadaoui and the dizzying dance of the Gnaoua. The laundry strings heavy with clean white sheets, soft bejewelled babouche slippers, and Mum’s favourite pair of pink velvet trousers. The fevered sleep, the fervent calls to prayer through Ramadan, the suffocating steam and slough of the Hammam. The ‘blazing halo’ of freshly hennaed hair in the morning sun. The moreish crumble of the street-seller’s mahjoun. The ‘sweeping sounds of Egyptian music [weaving] magic into the air like scent’. And the food. Mulberries, pomegranates, chickpeas, dates. Honey pastries and fragrant spiced soups. Steaming glasses of mint tea and long, cool Fantas.

The-Medina-Marrakech-2-Mor1 Maroc_Marrakech_medina_2_414ec005102b45a8afea50542bce8643

The novel doesn’t, however, read as a “culture clash” narrative in the traditional sense. This is due largely to our narrator, four-year-old Lucy, who lacks the life experience to truly understand how unusual her life has suddenly become (at an age where very few things do make sense). Lucy’s big sister Bea is her companion, her idol, her yardstick, and her tyrant, and seems to her sibling to have some innate, hugely unfair understanding of the bewildering adult world. Not only does Bea delight in taunting Lucy for getting her facts wrong, but she can remember and recognise Mum’s old friends from years past in London, and is even allowed to go to school with the other local girls. All of this creates an ambivalence in Lucy, as she is quite happy to while her day away at home, and quite often aware that Bea regularly bluffs her way through, but still feels jealous that her sister is winning the game — feels babyish, left behind, and ashamed. Her limited comprehension is reflected in what she chooses to share (and glances over) as narrator — her heartbroken mother crying over the onions, the man who ‘made a circle with his thumb and index finger and pointed through it with his other hand’, even the true risqué meaning of her favourite-words-cum-sisterly-shibboleth, incessantly chanted: hideous kinky, hideous kinky. But though the stunted childlike perspective is watertight, Lucy’s descriptive vocabulary and grasp of grammar is consistently well beyond her years, creating a narrative discord, a kind of literary optical illusion. We see what the child sees, but the implications play to an adult understanding. The overall result is a melancholy sense in the reader: a feeling of reembodying our younger incarnation; a bittersweet reminder of all the simplicity, complexity, and frustration of childhood.

I had never had a doll before and now I had three. They slept with me in my bed, becoming more and increasingly more demanding of my time. There were various complicated ministrations and attentions at particular and specific times of the day and night, and especially in the morning when Bea was at school and Mum was praying or on a visit to her bank.

Appropriately, Bea frequently demands to be entertained with a story from her younger sister, staunchly refusing to “take her turn”, and the two fire their imaginations whispering back and forth across the bed covers — frightening tales of The Black Hand, The Spooky Carpet, and Mum’s potential to slip off with the Sufis while they sleep. Indeed, the girls’ anxiety and unease is palpable, most particularly in Bea, who is often forced to assert herself as the voice of reason in the face of her mother’s flights of narcissistic fancy — as well as to comfort her in moments of emotional crisis. The lack of structure and clearly marked boundaries in their life is echoed in Marrakesh’s discombobulating warren of streets and Babelesque babble of languages; their mother slipping and sliding between English, French, and Arabic. From the incredible disappearing Luigi Mancini, to Bea’s going missing (and successive slide into ill health), to Mum’s last-minute leaps from moving trains, it’s no surprise that her daughters have subconsciously digested the conviction that this is a place of the lost and found, the found and lost — inherently unstable terrain.

hk alice lotm

In the book’s opening pages, en route to Morocco, Mum entertains the girls with Lewis Carroll’s ‘Lobster Quadrille’: Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance? Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance? This sets a keen tone for Lucy’s story, for the family’s subsequent “adventures” as they travel down the rabbit hole (again with the warrens). Somewhat coincidentally, I recently read both the Alice books and Francine Prose’s Lives of the Muses, which casts a lurid light on the story of the real life Alice Liddell and her “doting” chronicler Charles Dodgson. Despite Prose’s eloquent defense and best sympathies for a man maddened by the muse, “misunderstood” in his own time, it’s difficult to get past the fact he was primarily a man who sent erotic letters to children, took naked photos of them ‘for his own collection’, and accepted nothing less than a kiss on the lips goodbye — a fairly grim chapter in an otherwise wildly evocative portrait of history’s great creative (consensual) relationships. Based upon the most favourite of his “child friends”, Carroll’s formidable heroine wanders in a technicolor landscape of ever-shifting boundaries and volatile temperaments, of dematerialising cats with killer grins and tea parties where one must constantly move chairs whilst being variously insulted by a presiding madman; where she herself repeatedly shrinks and swells; where her emotions — her status as a lost child — are ignored, often cruelly. Similarly, Freud’s Medina figures as an, again, unstable terrain of eccentric and overinterested ex-pats — strange adults who don’t understand children as children, lacking any evident consciousness of boundaries or propriety. ‘”Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.’ ‘”Why don’t you both sit down and take some tea with me?’ the man said in perfect English.’ The girls are constantly being courted by the (it must be emphasised: non-native) grown-ups around them, offered gifts and alluring tall tales, with little intervention from Mum, and though this never transgresses to Dodgson levels of creepsomeness, it does make for an at-times uneasy reading experience. ‘I want to go home!’ sobs Alice in Disney’s 1951 rendition of the tale: ‘When I get home, I shall write a book about this place.’ Much like Alice, Lucy and Bea are consistently ambivalent about their new home: drained from being always out of their element, but utterly enchanted by the wonderland around them; begging their mother to leave then breaking their hearts when the notion becomes real. Much like Alice they are good, smart kids wandering naively adrift in a mad, mad world.

Gillies MacKinnon’s 1998 film version of Hideous Kinky does a great job of bringing the novel’s underlying anxieties to the surface, with nightmarish scenes of the girls racing through the wending alleys of the Medina, and their mother railing against the half-life of London with its grey skies and suddenly ubiquitous television set. Nudged to 1972, with Mum officially christened Julia, it necessarily loses the charm and poignancy of Lucy’s narrative take, instead focussing on the conflicts of a lost young woman struggling to raise two children alone in the wake of the 1960s. In this version of events, Bea and Lucy are the ones in the know, who drily identify their neighbours as prostitutes while their mother gazes naively upon her surroundings with the eyes of Alice, only assuming her adult role as an afterthought (‘Do you think so…? Where did you learn that!’). A fantastic soundtrack is driven by the raw yowl of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’, again giving voice to Julia’s desperate quest for meaning, and again emphasising the Carroll connection (Grace Slick was so lastingly impressed with Alice’s Adventures since childhood that she penned acid-trip anthem ‘White Rabbit’ in its honour). Overall, an imperfect but enchanting adaptation — starring a post-Titanic Kate Winslet on her very own voyage of discovery — it’s certainly worth a watch.

To return to the task at hand, Freud’s debut novel is a fascinating non-memoir that had me dashing not only to buy up her other books, but to dredge up family mythology on the real-life Mum and that mysterious famous father back in England. Recommended for fans of far-flung climes, cultural dynasties, old-fashioned fairytales, and help-my-mother-was-a-bohemian narratives (believe me, it’s a solid genre). I could quite easily have read another hundred-plus pages. Best saved for only the sunniest (or most Seasonally Affective Disordered) of days.