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.

two short essays on tiny furniture

I. TINY FURNITURE AS VAMPIRE NARRATIVE

Though in recent years primarily a love story template, the vampire tradition is deeply rooted in the Persephone myth, in which a young maiden is kidnapped by Death to his underworld kingdom. Demeter, her mother, wreaks devastation on the human world in her bereavement, disrupting the necessary mortal cycles of ageing and agriculture, causing a break in the devotional cycle to trouble too those immortal gods complicit in the rape of her daughter. When finally Zeus commands Persephone’s return, Death tricks her into eating a pomegranate seed, thus tying her forever to his world of shades. While free to spend two seasons of the year reunited with her mother, Persephone must always spend the third season back underground, during which time Demeter spites the universe with winter; an end to life, a voice to her grief. A part of her daughter is now forever changed; forever inaccessible; forever lost.

In Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), for example, the bid to capture the beast is tellingly described as ‘the search of her whom a mother had missed’. In ‘Der Vampir’ (1748), Heinrich August Ossenfelder writes of a sanguine bedside visitor, ‘kissing’ his victim-bride to ‘trembling’ on ‘death’s threshold’: ‘And last shall I thee question / Compared to such instruction / What are a mother’s charms?’ In early vampire literature — before the masculine anxiety dream of Dracula or the shimmering totalitarian watchfulness of Edward Cullen & Co. — the natural adversary of the nosferatu wasn’t god, or the vengeful band of brothers, or even the sun, but the matriarch. (An interesting complication here is the allegiance between the vampire and the moon: that ultimate symbol of feminine energy.)

Tiny Furniture is a portrait of the daughter’s goddessification of the mother; the mother as consuming figure/fantasy object. Exhibit A: Aura’s mom is literally named Siri — the all-seeing, all-knowing, path-finding prophetess of the twenty-first century. (The name itself is a telling one, from the Norwegian, meaning ‘beautiful woman who leads you to victory’ or ‘beautiful victorious counsellor’.) In this sense, following the Persephone model, the mother figures as a kind of rivalling love interest. The vampire story is inherently a narrative of identities, in which character roles are profoundly entangled. Think of the importance of mirrors, the mingling of blood. The undead feed from the bodies of others like babies, parasiting the “life force” of their victims. Alternatively, taking from mothers to become mothers, they offer rebirth, giving new life, suckling their young. Mothers become captors, killers, anti-husbands. In Tiny Furniture, Aura represents both maiden — performing that Persephone palindrome of leaving and returning, leaving and returning — and monster.

Aura: I’m really mature but every time I come in to your room, I wanna sleep in your bed.
Siri: Well you can sleep here if I’m here, you just can’t sleep here if I’m not here. … You need to be invited, I have to invite you to come in.
Aura: Like a vampire.

The vampire story is inherently a narrative of boundaries. Think of the importance of the crossing of thresholds, the transgression of the rules of mortality, the trespass on a victim’s bodily (and spiritual) autonomy. The beast must be invited. Desire, whether conscious or otherwise, is a necessary component of the violation and subsequent metamorphosis. It is a story of complicity and coalescence, therefore lending itself easily to narratives of sexuality. But what of the intermingled identities of my mother my self? Try as she might, Aura struggles to achieve the boundless closeness to Siri that she so desires, albeit ambivalently. As eerie double of their mother and veritable wunderkid who is yet to leave home, younger sister Nadine represents a surer, more natural matriarchal ally — a fact that does not escape Aura’s attention. Even jilted college-roommate Frankie looks more like a potential member of the family. In this house, Aura has no reflection.

This push-pull of mother-daughter relations, with all its vampiric overtone, is particularly complicated when each woman is an artist. In early scenes we see Aura poring over Siri’s old diaries in a bid to merge their experiences, cannibalising her mother’s words to create her own art. ‘I want to be like you,’ she decides in the end, rubbing Siri’s aching back as they lie together in that coveted bed. The pose, out of context, is textbook.

 

II. SOMEWHERE A CLOCK IS TICKING

In a great piece on n+1, Elizabeth Gumport celebrates Dunham’s ‘allegiance to her own experience — to having it, to recording it’. She discusses what is arguably the film’s climactic scene:

Aura decides to remain at home instead of moving to Brooklyn with Frankie. It’s a selfish decision, made worse by the fact Aura doesn’t tell Frankie until the day before she’s due to arrive in New York. But it’s also an act of bravery … If protecting it costs Aura her friendship with Frankie, that is perhaps the price she must pay for her work, and success … Moving out of her mother’s apartment would be an ignorant and extravagant waste of Aura’s time, which is finite and irrecoverable, just like everybody else’s.

An obsession with time, the slipping away and preservation of, is one shared by a young Siri in her journals. As they lie together in bed, mother and daughter probe one another with intimate questions, their codependency finally drawn distinct, having bubbled through the course of the film with Aura’s ever-ringing mobile, her reluctance to go out for the night, to make a clean break from the family home. Despite this intimacy, despite their curling together, in the end nothing is fully resolved between Aura and her mother. Realising she can do little to intervene, all too reminded of the haphazard “trying things out” of her own twenties, Siri can only urge her daughter to be careful; can only offer her the refuge of her shared bed for the night.

Aura: I’m really tired, Mom, I just have to go to sleep.
Siri: You wanna sleep with me?
Aura: Yeah.
Siri: Why don’t you shut off the light.

Siri: Do you hear that ticking sound?
Aura: A little bit, maybe, I think it’s the alarm clock.
Siri: Do you think you could move it?
Aura: Yeah, one second.

Aura: I put it away.
Siri: I can still hear it.
Aura: Yeah but only a little bit, right?

This symbolic rejection of time’s incessant tick echoes Aura’s opting out of the traditional workday world, set against her conversation with Ray about 8am alarm calls, her chronic running-lateness, her boss’s refusal to engage in the effervescent apology game. Having quit her hostess job, seeing her work featured in a real-world exhibition (albeit imperfectly, and by Charlotte’s arrangement), she finally admits that she too wants to achieve artistic success; no longer self-consciously dismissing that world as ‘my mom’s racket’. Climbing back into her mother’s bed, she will fold herself into the privilege of Siri’s affluent artistic lifestyle, giving up the self-imposed rigidity of minimum wage existence, experiencing authentically what Ray could only experience vicariously as a houseguest — literally off the clock.

Though returning from a life of certain independence at Oberlin, Aura seems only now to be realising the reality of her autonomy, the concept of choice in who and what populates her life, keenly curious about the names that spatter Siri’s journals, the lost friends and lovers of her past, once so omnipresent and vital. Aura has spent the entire film considering and negotiating the breach and break of life’s relationships: intermittently giving too much to vague acquaintances and asking too much of those she holds dearest. The gulf between mother and daughter suddenly so stark, ‘the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue‘. Though presumably a constant presence in the room, the clock was unheard in any previous scene, and only suddenly now becomes so bothersome — painfully loud and necessarily removed, though never quite silenced. Thinking of the symbolic connection between the clock and the heartbeat, the tick and ticker, one might be reminded of this passage of Adrienne Rich’s Transcendental Etudes, on the subject of her whom a daughter has lost:

At most we’re allowed a few months
of simply listening to the simple
line of a woman’s voice singing a child
against her heart. Everything else is too soon,
too sudden, the wrenching-apart, that woman’s heartbeat
heard ever after from a distance
the loss of that ground-note echoing
whenever we are happy, or in despair.