It’s the 1960s, and we meet our narrator (an unnamed little girl who seems to be about five) and her big sister Bea’s as they travel across Europe to Morocco in a camper van. The adult reader can infer that their mother is looking for adventure, enlightenment or just an escape from the norm, but we never find out the reason for their journey, or what the ‘norm’ back in London was. They set up temporary home in places as varied as a cheap hotel, an abandoned cinema in a friend’s garden, and a Sufi retreat; and along the way we’re introduced to an array of characters in the towns and villages of Morocco. All of this is shown to us through the filter of the child narrator, with no interpretation or explanation. Much is missing from the story, and so as an adult you find yourself inferring how old she is, who is periodically sending money from England, which of the men the mother is sleeping with, and how long things will hang together for.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet Esther Freud, and she said that when she was writing Hideous Kinky she kept the children’s uncertainty and anxiety in the forefront of her mind. So beneath the surface of the absurd and comic episodes such as the light-fingered prostitutes who share their hotel home stealing a friend’s nappies, or the girls’ realisation that they can never eradicate the ticks infesting the sheep dogs they befriend, there is a continual feeling of bewilderment and home-sickness. The girls are neither neglected nor unloved, but their mother’s flakiness is impacting on their lives and experiences.
This is a short and sweet book. Because it takes a day to read, and is full of comedic and wry moments, it would be easy to dismiss it as just sort and sweet. But in her presentation of the bad decisions adults make and the way they can affect their children, Freud makes this autobiographical novel much more than that.