In the latest entry in the Wales Arts Review Greatest Welsh Novel series, Dylan Moore takes an affectionate look at Trezza Azzopardi‘s masterful, Booker-nominated, The Hiding Place.
Tiger Bay occupies a singular position in the Welsh imagination. Through its oft-celebrated Otherness, its non-traditional version of Welshness, its cosmopolitan grid of terraced streets and roughhouse boozers have become a shorthand representation of Wales almost as powerful as pitwheels and red jerseys and chapels on remote hillsides. But from John Mills’ evocative shots of Pillgwenlly’s Transporter Bridge through Shirley Bassey’s upbringing in Splott to the Dr Who Experience at Roath Lock, ‘the Bay’ has always been a place of tall tales, a place that easily succumbs to myth-making.
In the popular imagination, Tiger Bay was both a community of vice and danger and a place where you could leave your front door open. It was where sailors from around the world – Norway, China, the Caribbean, Arabia and the Horn of Africa – stopped and settled, fell in love with girls from the Valleys and created their own rainbow nation within a nation. As the graffiti once had it, this was Independent Tropical Wales.
Although there are grains of truth within what is undoubtedly an attractive idea of one of Britain’s first truly multicultural neighbourhoods, it is in stark contrast to such cosy sepia visions and lazy stereotypes that The Hiding Place sets itself up. Trezza Azzopardi’s debut novel is a family saga set in the dockland community of the forties, fifties and sixties. Published in 2000 – the year after the rebranded ‘Cardiff Bay’ became the nation’s political focal point – it is anything but sentimental.
Contemporary reviews celebrated The Hiding Place as a revelation and exploration of a community underrepresented in literary fiction; in The Guardian, D.J. Taylor pointed out that the Maltese of British fiction were primarily ‘low-life bit-parters in Soho crime novels, gamely hurling paraffin heaters through the windows of dirty bookshops.’ If Azzopardi’s characters were more fully realised than their pulp fiction counterparts, they hardly painted her father’s countrymen in a more positive light.
Indeed, The Hiding Place’s patriarch – Frankie Gauci – is a dark figure who casts a long, vampiric shadow over his wife Mary, all six of his daughters and, for a long time afterwards, the reader. The book is a dark tale of sickening abuse, unflinching violence, unfettered gambling, arson, prostitution and the killing of a pet rabbit. All of this is handled with a surety far beyond that of most debuts and the book was deservedly shortlisted for the Booker Prize – for its ‘vivid picture of Cardiff’s seedy 1960s underworld… [an] immigrant community of gangsters, gaming rooms and betting shops, cafes, clubs and back-to-back terraces’ and the ‘haunting beauty’ of Azzopardi’s prose, ‘sparse’, condensed’, ‘poetic’. What marks The Hiding Place out as great among the good is its suggestiveness and atmosphere of suppressed truth.
Trezza Azzopardi’s narrator is Dolores, the youngest of the Gauci sisters, and the novel moves deftly between Dol’s child-viewpoint and a dual narrative in which she employs her adult hindsight. Through the gaps, Trezza Azzopardi explores the very nature of memory, as Dolores attempts to come to terms with the psychological fallout of her brutal childhood and shattered family. It makes for a heart-rending first-person voice: as early as page 15, Dolores is narrating her own birth through a quasi-omniscient view of her mother: ‘Mary is in a state of mute blankness. A girl baby, yet again. In her head, she wonders what to call me – she’s exhausted her list of Saints’ names on the boys she never bore, and is sick of all the arias in the names her girls have got.’ This is how poor Dolores starts her life, as her mother’s own little lady of sorrows – and things are about to get worse.
At a month old, Dolores’ left hand is burned in a house fire that has tragic consequences for the whole family. As a result, Frankie sees Dolores as an omen, and the loss of her hand becomes the novel’s central motif. And it is this symbolic power that lifts The Hiding Place from its place as a ‘niche’ novel, notable for its sailing into the uncharted waters of Tiger Bay’s Maltese underworld and the chilling dexterity of its presentation of child abuse, onto the very top table of Welsh writing in English.
‘Porth Teigr’ is today being refitted into a factory for ‘the creative industries’. That The Hiding Place offers a glimpse of the old, ‘real’ Tiger Bay is perhaps simply a bonus. What we learn between the cracks of Dolores’ unreliable narration is a reminder not only of the unbearably quiet tragedies of many lives, but also the power that literature retains to invoke in the reader a little understanding of those whose lives have been forgotten in the rush to create broad brushstroke histories.