This is a fairly grim debut novel about a family's deprivation in 1960s Cardiff. Frank Gauci has emigrated from Malta in the late 1940s, and gets a very real culture shock when he sees snow for the first time. However, Frank soon gets over his malaise, helped by his friendship with Joe Medora and his marriage to the runaway Mary. With his friend Salvatore, Frank is soon in business running The Moonlight. However, Maltese tradition stresses the importance of having a son. After 5 daughters, when Mary is pregnant for the sixth time, Frank just knows that his luck must be in. And Frank is very experienced as a gambling man... So sets off a chain of events that it will haunt the family and neighbourhood for forty years.
I suppose if you were to put this novel into any genre, then it would be 'Angela's Ashes'. Although Azzopardi herself was born and brought up in Cardiff, and seems to be from a Maltese background, this is a work of fiction. The setting is Tiger Bay, 'Britain's Valletta', home to many races and mixed marriages, and Shirley Bassey. Frank seems to have bought his way into the more unsettling regions of Maltese culture. The story of the Gaucis is quite grim - there's a pivotal scene where Dolores, sometime narrator, the hoped for boy who turned out to be a girl, is caught in a fire whilst still a baby. The fire has left her mutilated for life: "that soft skin is petrol, those bones are tinder". The preceding excerpt gives you an indication of what Azzopardi's subtle, lyrical prose is like. Azzopardi's words are understated, subtle, true, and original, without ever straining at the leash of credibility. The narrative moves forwards and backwards in time, and jumps from narrator to narrator, yet Azzopardi's technique is so simple and supreme, that you never find yourself lost.
One of the scenes which really rings true is the funeral. Azzopardi's observations are spot on, and make you think that you really are standing in Dolores' shoes. Time has separated and divided the sisters, only death, it seems, can bring them together. Dolores can't help but wonder about the missing details of her life. Although she was very young when the family was divided, Dolores seems to have seen everything. But there are some things, it seems, which have been blocked from her memory. Like the true physical nature of the hiding place... There's also the internal hiding place, where Dolores has closely guarded her memories, the funeral as catalyst to spark them once more. There's also a funeral atmosphere about the Cardiff streets in which she grew up. Most of the houses have been discarded, knocked down to make way for the call of rejuvenation. Memories and places destroyed. Only a few ghosts from the past are recognisable.
It is Dolores' misfortune that she had a superstitious father. Ugly subplots about disease, children's homes, and debt collectors, boil subtly under the surface. Poverty exists even when you own a TV set in the early sixties. Yet despite all this grimness, you sense that there is still a reason for living, for holding on. The resolution is neither uplifting nor particularly downbeat. Life just is, Azzopardi seems to be saying. Dolores doesn't have a friend like Shug Avery in this novel, but she seems to have found her own way, even though the details of her current life in Nottingham are absent. Dolores cannot think of anything but the past. Life is difficult, suicide even more so. Azzopardi does not dwell on the misery. Dolores cannot but help going back to the bad memories of her childhood, to be nostalgic despite the pain. And people do live with the pain. We all have our own hiding place, as Azzopardi readily acknowledges.
authortrek rating: 8/10.
Kevin Patrick Mahoney
Read our Trezza Azzopardi interview