Bawl in the Family

Toward the beginning of Trezza Azzopardi’s impressive if unrelentingly grim first novel (most of which is set in Wales during the sixties), a slick, failed mob henchman sells his prepubescent daughter to pay off a gambling debt; if I say that this is one of the book’s least depressing moments, you’ll understand why I’ve come to think of this novel as a How Green Was My Valley without any “green.” As it happens, Azzopardi’s Booker Prize-nominated debut appears at the same time as Dorothy Gallagher’s hilariously tart memoir of middle-class Jewish life during the forties and fifties. But for all that they look like products of different species, the two books have a lot of the same preoccupations. Both works are concerned with, and derive their impact from, the difference between the ways children and adults see things; both, in their different ways, achieve remarkable poignancy.

The Hiding Place is divided into two parts, one set in the past, one in the present. The first reveals the economic, social, and moral disintegration of the Gauci family of Cardiff: Frankie, an immigrant from Malta; his Welsh-born wife, Mary; and their six daughters. In gradual but inexorable stages over the course of a few months, the vain and violent Frankie loses everything to gambling: first his business, then the aforementioned daughter, then his wife, then his best friend, and finally, I think it’s fair to say, his soul. As Frankie becomes increasingly indebted to the small-time mobsters for whom he works, his exhausted wife gradually collapses into madness. All this is narrated from the point of view of the youngest daughter, the 5-year-old Dolores (“Dol”). But the full extent of the family’s degradation, which includes Frankie’s vicious abuse of the women in his life (particularly of Dol), becomes clear only in the book’s second part, which is set in the present, following Mary’s death. At her wake, the remaining daughters dredge up long-buried traumas that, once revealed, compel you to rethink the entire story you’ve just been told. “As with all truth,” Dol observes at one point, “there is another version.”

Azzopardi is concerned here with the moral and social implications of “other versions” – the way that different perspectives signal (or create) dire human tragedy. One way she makes you consider this is through small but ultimately telling ironies of plot and character. As Frankie ponders pawning off yet another daughter to a rich, repellent crony of his (there is, of course, no question that he will), he looks to the sky for a sign. Gratefully, he takes the fiery glow he sees as a portent of divine assent, never guessing that the fire is one of the many that his delinquent middle daughter, a different kind of “gambler,” has been setting in abandoned slums that are (here’s the real portent) being demolished, displacing the local poor. Later, an officious social worker who comes to put the errant Fran into a children’s home presumes that “she knows our history because she’s written it down”; the terrible irony is that what the social worker’s written (that Marina, the daughter who we know was sold, has been “fostered to extended family in Malta”) couldn’t be further from the horrible truth. Self-serving myopia afflicts the system as well as individuals. In either case, lives get destroyed.

The greatest disjunction in perspective, however, turns out to be the one between what Dol the child actually experienced and what she has recalled for us in “Part One.” At the end of the book, you realize with a shudder just how self-protective Dol’s version was. “You and Rose, locking me in there. Shame on you!” she screams at her sister Luca after their mother’s funeral, referring to the hiding place of the title, a rabbit hutch whose sinister history you don’t fully appreciate till the very end. “Dol,” the sister wearily replies, “we were letting you out.”

Compared with the tersely understated grimness of the first part, these revelations, along with the gathering-at-the-funeral structure of the second half, come off as clichéd and melodramatic; Azzopardi has already done such a meticulous job of tracing the way vanity, addiction, poverty, and neglect crush her characters that the more sensational, Sally Jessy-ish crimes (beatings, torture) she reveals at the end seem contrived. (As does Dol’s highly symbolic physical deformity, the causes of which are revealed in a scene that isn’t as climactically satisfying as the author might wish.)

There’s a lot of excess here, actually. A lot of the writing is overcooked; as I read this novel I kept thinking of that line from Amadeus about there being “too many notes” in one of Mozart’s operas. And while the bleakness, or sometimes just the sheer boredom, of these characters’ dingy lives is generally conveyed with considerable style – a bevy of call girls who hang out at Frankie’s joint leave “the imprints of their bored thighs” on the leatherette bar stools – the lyricism can curdle into artiness: “The dull applause of footsteps on the stairs,” etc. Still, there’s much that’s worthwhile here. Most novels and memoirs about poverty indulge in moments of “heartwarming” humor and redemptive pluck; the McCourt family has made a good living off just that. Whatever its faults, The Hiding Place never uses cheap sentiment to let you off the hook; like the work of the most mature writers, it leaves you nowhere to hide.

“When I was a kid,” Dorothy Gallagher (née Rosen) writes about her cantankerous father in How I Came Into My Inheritance, “I thought he had made the world.” Needless to say, he didn’t; the tension between what the adult Gallagher now knows about her idiosyncratic Jewish family and what she once thought of them gives this bracingly unsentimental memoir its distinctive tone – at once breezy and wrenching. Gallagher has mastered a wicked one-two narrative punch, frequently juxtaposing Then and Now to poignant effect: Tales of her talented but thwarted mother’s youth segue, suddenly and devastatingly, into a description of Mrs. Rosen’s solitary death in a Bronx nursing home; a childhood vision of her “plump aunt Frieda” is interrupted by a parenthesis informing you that “in her middle age she will be killed by a runaway car.” Yes, there are plenty of vintage moments of immigrant-Jewish-family mishegoss here: the elder generation’s fierce, if rather blind, devotion to Stalin (“Who says Trotsky was assassinated, darling?”), the by-now-familiar shtick about money and jobs (“Poetry! Music! – he earns a living from this?”). But if all this goes down as sweetly and smoothly as Manischewitz’s Extra Heavy Malaga, Gallagher’s unsentimental willingness to snap you back to the present, to remind you how it all turned out, gives her book a martini-dry kick. I’m not sure the bits about her own career-girl days as a budding New York writer in the sixties are as compelling as the rest; but when she honors her father and her mother (and aunts and uncles), it’s easy to forget the lapses. “These pages are their last home,” she writes of the extinct older generation she describes so vividly and idiosyncratically; they should be happy to be so well and warmly housed.

The Hiding Place
By Trezza Azzopardi.
Atlantic Monthly Press; 282 pages; $24.
How I Came Into My Inheritance And Other True Stories
By Dorothy Gallagher. Random House; 188 pages; $22.95.

Bawl in the Family