Book Review: Freud meets Ab Fab?
By Esther Freud
Harper Perennial, 1999
General reading value: 3/5
Armchair travel value: 3/5
Why Hideous Kinky? The name, of course! As soon as I opened the page to Morocco in my trusty Lonely Planet Travel Book, I immediately decided I would read Esther Freud’s beguilingly titled, semi-autobiographical novel which I had recently been given for a birthday present and not yet had a chance to read.
Prior to this book, the only exposure to Morocco I’d had was an episode of the BBC series Absolutely Fabulous. Ironically, the plotline of that episode is not unlike the plotline in Hideous Kinky as I will now demonstrate:
Ab Fab episode: Scatty, free-spirited “kidult” (Edina), perennially seeking both the meaning of life and herself and constantly taking up various religious and spiritual fads, takes equally scatty best friend Patsy and her own bookish, old-before-her-time daughter, Saffy, to Morocco. Edina ends up abandoning her daughter (selling her, in fact), taking off with Patsy into the desert and then, finding herself penniless and lost, has to hitch a ride back to Marrakech. There, she is reunited with her daughter who ends up organising for all three of them to return to London.
Hideous Kinky : Scatty, free-spirited kidult (“Mum” or “Julia”), seeking the meaning of life and herself and interested in various religious practices such as Sufism, uproots bookish, old-before-their-time daughters Bea and the narrator (Lucy) and travels to Marrakech with equally scatty, free-spirited friends. Over the course of the novel, she abandons one of her daughters, taking the other on a pilgrimage to find a Zaouia and then, penniless, has to hitch a ride back to Marrakech. There, after some difficulty, she reunites with her other daughter, only deciding to return to London when Bea, suffering some sort of vitamin deficiency, nearly loses all her teeth and the three have to resort to begging to sustain themselves.
Ok, so I am being a little facetious and there is far more to the novel than what I have outlined above but the plots are not dissimilar and both tend to reinforce a stereotypical idea of Morocco as a sort of mystical, spiritual place people go to when they are seeking something..even if they are not sure what it is. In this novel, Julia, Bea and Lucy are all consciously or unconsciously searching. Julia is searching for spiritual enlightenment but also a carefree, unanchored lifestyle in direct opposition to the stuffy, regimented childhood in which she grew up. Bea, ironically, spends the novel searching for normality and the very lifestyle her mother abhors. She asks to go to school, loves her crisp white uniform as opposed to her mother’s flowing caftans and makes friends with other expatriate women who resemble more closely the traditional notion of a mother figure. Lucy, meanwhile, is desperately searching for a father figure and bestows this role on any man who shows even the slightest interest in her mother, in particular a Moroccan acrobat called Bilal who tumbles and tricks his way in and out of their lives at his whim.
As the book is written from the perspective of a young child, the sights of Morocco are presented almost like images in a kaleidoscope. The colours, people, fabrics, faces and buildings in each scene are presented in a vivid, chaotic swirl with some aspects of the scene commented on but not explained or reflected upon, before the narrator describes the next scene. Despite this, it is still easy to imagine oneself, for example, in the “Djemaa el Fna” or town square, being entertained by the dancing Gnauoa – (“a Sengalese tribe from West Africa…employed by the King of Morocco as his own personal drummers”) – coveting a pair of bright babouches (shoes) and listening to the constant cry of “Inshallah!” from the crowds.
Moroccan politics and religion are touched on to the extent that they would impact on a young child and particularly a foreign one. The narrator (Lucy) is disturbed, for example, when Bilal’s Muslim sister is beaten by her brothers for lifting her veil in public but Lucy does not meditate upon this beyond receiving Bilal’s explanation that the beating was necessary to instruct the sister how to behave in order to be preserved for marriage.
Similarly, when Lucy accompanies her mother on a pilgrimage to visit the leader of the Sufis and observes him facilitating all day prayers with a group of followers, Lucy’s only thought is that she too would like to wear their white outfits and be part of the praying circle.
What I particularly enjoyed about reading Hideous Kinky was the descriptions of Moroccan cuisine. The characters sample everything from majoun a “lump of hashish pounded into a sweet like fudge” (p. 51) to boiled eggs sprinkled with salted cumin to bissara soup made with split peas, cumin and olive oil. Lucy’s mum (Julia) ends up virtually living on harira soup which is the only thing she is permitted to eat during her fasting for Ramadan. Mint tea and copious amounts of tajine – a kind of stew cooked in “a dish with a lid that looked like an upside down flowerpot” and set atop a mjimar – a “large clay pot with fir inside it” – are also frequently consumed. This is a picture of a tajine and the dish made within it:
As for my reason for reading this book – to discover the meaning behind its wonderful title –“Hideous” and “Kinky” are simply two words the sisters love to say, particularly, when playing a game of tag. The incongruous use of these fairly expressive words by children and for the purposes of a game really encapsulates the novel as a whole – a story about two young girls having to cope with some fairly adult experiences and concepts but in that innocent and unknowing way that only children can.
The Literary Nomad xx
mijmar – a large clay plot containing fire used as stove for cooking
Delay your stay…
FICTION: Year of the Elephant (Leila Abouzeid), The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles); Let It Come Down (Paul Bowles); The Almond (Nedjma), M’hashish (Mohammed Mrabet), In Morocco (Edith Wharton); Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (Laila Lalami); Larabi’s Ox (Tony Ardizzone).
NON-FICTION: A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco (Suzanna Clarke); The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca (Tahir Shah); The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit (Elias Canetti); Dream of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (Fatima Mernissi).