Hideous Kinky

In which I review Hideous Kinky, Esther Freud’s 1992 novel about two young English girls living in the chaos of late 1960s Morocco while their well-meaning hippie mother pursues enlightenment.

What it’s about: Morocco, the late 1960s. The story begins with the unnamed narrator, a four year-old English girl, travelling with her mother and six year-old sister Bea to Morocco. They arrive in Marrakech and share a room with Mum’s lover John and his ex-wife Maretta. John returns to London, and the family are left with Maretta, who is comatose with depression, except for two words – “hideous” and “kinky” – which become a private chant between the girls. They meet a wealthy Italian, Luigi Mancini, who invites them his luxurious home, and gifts the Narrator with a black hen whom she calls Snowy. Mum meets a handsome street performer named Bilal and they become lovers, while the girls happily adopt him as a surrogate father. The Narrator has no memory of her real father, a well-known poet, from whom Mum is estranged but relies on for money. Bilal invites them to visit his village, where Mum is horrified by Bilal’s sister being beaten for not wearing a veil. They return to Marrakech, where no money has arrived from their father and Bilal is unable to find work. They move into a hotel, where the Narrator is forced to give up Snowy after complaints from the other residents. One afternoon, Mum lets the girls try majoun, a sweet cake made with cannabis. Linda, an English friend of Mum’s with a baby daughter, arrives in Marrakech and moves in with them, wages a war against a group of prostitutes in the hotel who are stealing her nappies. Bea demands to be able to go to school, and Mum borrows money from Linda to make her a school uniform. Bilal returns and invites Mum and the girls to a holiday, where they camp by a lake. After running out of food, Bilal goes scavenging at a nearby hotel. They return to Marrakech, while Bilal goes to Casablanca to find work. Under the influence of a Muslim friend, Mum starts praying and fasting during Ramadan and expresses interest in becoming a Sufi. Linda returns to London. With little money left, the family move into an empty hotel and Mum unsuccessfully tries to sell hand-made dolls in the streets. Mum takes up with a fellow guest, Pedro, and meets two American Sufis, who inspire her to go to Algiers to study Sufism. They return to Marrakech in search of Bilal, where the girls meet a well-to-do Englishwoman named Sophie. Bea asks to live with Sophie when Mum goes to Algiers, and the sisters say an uncomfortable goodbye. Mum and the Narrator hitchhike and get a lift with a trucker, narrowly avoiding a crash around a steep mountain path. After sleeping the night in a mud hut, they get a ride to the mosque, where Mum is turned away. They wait in Algiers until money arrives from London, and they buy tickets to Marrakech to see Bea. At the last minute, Mum insists they jump the train and return to the mosque, where this time they are welcomed. Bea has recurring nightmares of a Black Hand strangling her, and starts wetting the bed. They return to Marrakech for Bea’s birthday, and discover that Sophie and her husband have moved away. Bea refused to go with Sophie and has disappeared. Eventually theyfind Bea at a missionary school run by the devoutly Christian Patricia, who criticises Mum’s parenting. They return to their old hotel, where Bilal finally reappears. Bea becomes gravely ill with a gum infection. Bilal and Mum beg for money in the streets, with which Mum buys their tickets back to England. They catch their train Marrakech amid the noise and colour of the King’s birthday celebrations.

Why it’s a classic: Hideous Kinky was Esther Freud’s debut novel, published when she was just 26. Freud freely acknowledged that the story was autobiographical, based on her own experiences of living in a Morocco with her mother Bernardine Coverley and older sister Bella, while their father – the painter Lucian Freud – remained in London. The novel became a modest bestseller, praised by critics for its vivid depiction of 1960s Morocco and for Freud’s astonishing skill at narrating a complex story through the eyes of a young child. Hideous Kinky was one of the first of what became an interesting sub-genre of autobiographical fiction – the My Awful Hippie Parents Novel, in which the children of Baby Boomers re-told the 1960s counterculture from their own point of view, deflating many of the romantic myths of the era by pointing out its legacy of terrible clothes, too many drugs, misplaced idealism and spectacularly bad parenting. (Freud’s book both is and isn’t this type of story, which I discuss below).

The book had a major resurgence in popularity with the release of Gillies MacKinnon’s 1998 film adaptation, starring Kate Winslet as Mum (named Julia in the film) and two astonishing child actors, Carrie Mullan as the Narrator (renamed Lucy) and Bella Riza as Bea. Building on Winslet’s recent success in mega-schlockbuster Titanic, the film did rather better than most independent British films of the period, and still holds up well 20something years later. Since then, Hideous Kinky has never been out of print, but somehow hasn’t quite achieved the full “classic” status it probably deserves – something I hope to change with this blog.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge bouquet made of pomegranates. Hideous Kinky has been on my radar for a long time, after seeing the 1996 film. Fifteen years later, I visited Marrakech, and found it as beautiful and overwhelming as Freud’s young Narrator. In the intervening period, I’d been on a lot of yoga retreats and met a lot of prototypes of Mum in Hideous Kinky – well-meaning middle-class Englishwomen on a quest for spiritual enlightenment, or looking for some kind of alternative to their bourgeois capitalist existences. But the time I came to the book, I felt like I knew Mum, and was less interested in judging her, despite some spectacularly bad parenting choices.

What I wasn’t prepared for was just how engrossing a story told by a four year-old narrator would be, and what a remarkable literary sleight-of-hand Freud pulls off. Most of the great novels of childhood – David Copperfield, In Search of Lost Time, The Go-Between, An Angel at My Table – are adults looking back on their childhoods and recasting their experiences through the prism of their hard-won identities. Freud set herself a more unusual and difficult task, by telling her story as viewed by a child. While she allows herself a more complex vocabulary than most four-year olds could manage, the rhythm and pacing of the story and its focus on the tiny details that inform a child’s experience, gives the book a startling immediacy. The Narrator may only be a child, but she’s a little person, with her own thoughts, desires, fears and ways of making sense of the strange new world she’s been thrust into. To Freud’s great credit, she keeps us at the Narrator’s physical and emotional level, resisting any attempt to make her wise beyond her years or to add in a more adult type of reportage.

The effect of this limited perspective is both constricting and strangely addictive. We don’t know from minute to minute where the Narrator is or who the adults are who drift in and out of her life, as the Narrator isn’t fully aware of this herself. We’re invited to focus on what she feels and thinks about – Snowy the chicken, the Black Hand that haunts her at night, and the continual push-pull of her relationship with Bea. As befits the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, the man who explained to us the importance of early childhood and family dynamics in the formation of identity, this Freud truly understands how power dynamics work between older and younger siblings. “I sat on the wall and wondered how it was that Bea won, whatever the game,” the Narrator tells us. “However hard I copied and stored the rules, at the last moment she always twisted them, added something new and won.”

At the same time, Freud has the Narrator report conversations that she’s overheard without fully understanding them. These snippets are like gold dust for readers, allowing us to fill in some of the ugly adult world having about the margins – Maretta is grieving after her baby was taken into care, Mum and Linda are in flight from parents who disapprove of their having children out of wedlock, and the men who burst into their room in the empty hotel are looking for sex.

This kind of narrative puts the reader in an uncomfortable position – as we know more than the Narrator does about what is or could be going on, all our alarm buttons are triggered. From the opening pages, there’s a persistent sense of worry about the Narrator and whether she’s going to be alright. We don’t have quite the same instincts towards Bea, who is older, stroppier and better at expressing her own needs. The Narrator, being younger, has no control over what happens and can therefore do only one thing – cling tight to Mum and stay vigilant for any signs of change, of which, unfortunately, there are many. Even the final moment of the book, when they look to be out of danger, is fraught with uncertainty over what Mum might do next: “I thought it would be safest to stay on the seat in case Mum changed her mind about going home and decided at the last minute to jump off at one of the stations along the way.”

What’s fascinating about this approach is how it creates space for the reader to consider what’s happening, and to make our own judgments as required. If Freud had chosen Bea as her narrator, or an adult recounting their childhood experience, Hideous Kinky would have been a much angrier book, along the lines of Mommie Dearest or Deceived With Kindness, in which aggrieved adults bristle with outrage about the neglect and abuse in their childhoods. Freud takes a much more nuanced approach to the moral quandary at the heart of the story. Since we see Mum through her daughter’s eyes, we’re reminded of her great capacity for kindness – caring for a crying baby in Bilal’s village, buying dresses for the street children before leaving Marrakech – as well as her many moments of thoughtlessness and naiveté. There’s also a huge amount of fun in the book, especially the scenes of the girls running freely around cafes or through the streets, looking for Luigi’s phantom house. One senses this freedom wouldn’t have been possible if they’d stayed in Tonbridge Wells, even though they would have been warmer, cleaner and less likely to get abandoned. To her great credit, Freud presents her childhood with great sensitivity and generosity, leaving enough room for us to see Mum, flaws and all, without the kind of heavy-handed judgments that’s such a feature of this genre.

I’m not qualified to comment on how accurately or not the book describes Moroccan and Muslim cultures. That said, the character of Bilal is drawn with huge affection, and he emerges as the stealth hero of the story, valiantly reappearing when the others have abandoned the family, and engineering a plan to help them raise funds to return to England. He’s played very appealingly in the film by the gorgeous French-Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui, which (shamefully) remains one of the very few portrayals of an Arabic man in Western film who isn’t a violent terrorist.

What a delightful book this is – a stunning achievement in narration that captures the experience of being a child with insight and good humour, and a truly glorious evocation of a slice of life in 1960s counterculture. Like On the Road, I’m happy to read Hideous Kinky and love it, while feeling profoundly grateful that I didn’t have to experience what their authors went through to produce a great work of art. I’m also deeply impressed with the clarity that Freud brings to her own memories, and her refusal to judge her characters, that’s the sign of a mature artistic mind. Bravo.

Quotable Quote: “I turned around. The sun was a smouldering crescent, lying on the edge of the world. Fingers of light streamed away from it up through a wafer-thin purple cloud and into the dome of the sky. We sat shivering and watched the sun sink, giving up the sky to a moon that had hovered high since late afternoon, waiting for its chance of glory.”

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