More than once in a house on fire...

Polly Samson admires the toe-curling cruelty of an accomplished début, but begs for a little mercy
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The Independent Culture

The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi Picador, £14.99, 282pp

The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi Picador, £14.99, 282pp

As a new-born baby, Dolores Gauci was kept in a sea chest to save her from being smothered by her father. Her mother, in order to shield him from hearing the baby's cries, kept the lid down. Dark and stifling images abound in this powerful first novel. The Hiding Place is the suffocating slum house in Cardiff where the six unfortunate daughters of rotten, violent, inveterate gambler Frankie Gauci spend their childhood, either hiding or receiving a hiding. The world that Trezza Azzopardi conjures behind the closed door of number two, Hodge's Row is a dark and brutal place.

Frankie, who wreaks most of the damage, is a Maltese who drifts into postwar Tiger Bay to make his fortune. An act of gallantry gets him Mary as a wife - he spits in the rum of an aggressive customer in the bar where they both work. His friend, Joe Medora, is a mobster whose first act of kindness is to pierce Frankie's ear (this later goes septic, a suitable metaphor for the course their lives will take).

Because she was born on the night that he twisted one card too many and lost his ill-gotten gains, Frankie blames Dolores for all his bad luck. To her five sisters he refers to her as "the sinister". Before she is a month old, his reckless behaviour and that of broken-down Mary result in her being burnt in a fire.

Azzopardi's description of the fire as it licks around the baby shows her skill and restraint: "At one month old, a baby's hand is the tiniest, most perfect thing. It makes a fist, it spreads wide, and when it burns, that soft skin is petrol, those bones are tinder, so small, so easily eaten in a flame".

Later, Dolores has dreams where she is skipping, holding the handles of the rope with both hands. The missing hand stands for so much that is missing in her life. By the time social services intervene - when Dolores is five - she has lost her mother to mental illness and three sisters have gone, squandered by Frankie: one sold to Joe Medora (it is assumed, into child prostitution); another taken into care after too many thrills as an arsonist; a third, the beauty, married off to a widowed, pot-bellied mafioso in return for favours.

As with the work of Andrea Ashworth and Frank McCourt, The Hiding Place has toe-curling cruelty, of the documentary type, on almost every page. Looking at violence through the confused eyes of children provides some particularly nasty moments, such as when we experience Frankie's temper from the height of a two-year-old who has not yet learned to fear him. "He lifts her by the scruff of the neck, catching hair and the soft skin at the nape and pulling it into a scream." Next he hurls her on to the kitchen floor where she lies, dazed, and her mother steps over her to get a drink from the tap. She steps over her again on her way out of the kitchen. Azzopardi writes these scenes with gruesome authenticity and without mercy.

She can lay it on a bit thick at times, and I preferred the build-up of dark hints earlier in the book to some of the later passages. Sometimes nuance is enough, particularly as Azzopardi is an assured magician when it comes to tricks to keep the reader turning the pages, despite the harshness of her material. It's towards the end that she turns earlier hints into horror stories, by giving voice to the sisters who tell gruesome tales of the damage that Frankie has dealt them all.

For example, on the day before Fran is taken into care, Frankie wallops her to the floor. As she rubs the bruise we are told "there will be more to show before she goes away". In the morning, the other girls witness dark rings of blood on her pillow. And this is enough without in a later chapter having Fran tell us the full details of the gristle being whipped from her ear by the buckle of his belt.

An astonishingly accomplished book in many ways, it would have been better had Azzopardi trusted her readers to fill in some of the gaps. I reached the end still hoping for a small crack in the darkness, but found only another tunnel at the end of the tunnel.

* Polly Samson's 'Out of the Picture' is published by Virago