Although set among the increasingly fashionable thoroughfares of Norwich (see, for example, Henry Sutton's Kid's Stuff), Trezza Azzopardi's second novel is based on the career of "Nora Bridle": "a resident of the streets of Cardiff", according to the preface, and part of the imaginative canvas that inspired Azzopardi's Booker-shortlisted début, The Hiding Place. The fictional Nora's story begins in a room above a derelict shoe shop, with 72-year-old Winnie waking in darkness to discover a young female intruder casing the joint. No harm is done yet, as Winnie puts it, "I'd like to say she didn't touch a hair on my head, but that would be a lie."
Remember Me is full of lies: evasions, subterfuge and concealment rise off its pages like smoke from a fire. Winnie's tatterdemalian progress, beginning in the neatly evoked prewar Norwich backstreets and ending in their modern reincarnation, is essentially a search for identity, a journey in pursuit of something that is recognisably her own.
Even Winnie's succession of names - this is her fourth - seem arbitrary. There is a symbolic christening scene in which father and grandfather wrangle over what to call her. Her life, fragmentarily pieced together by vagrant memory, looks to have consisted of people taking things from her, whether the "tell-tale" red hair of her infancy or the unborn child of her teens.
There are times, in fact, when she wonders whether she actually exists. Aunty Ena, for instance, on whose bleak fenland farm she fetches up during the war, "moves round me as if I am invisible, and soon I am". Invisible or not, plenty of people have a claim on the girl told by her father not to "go worrying about the ghosts".
A fraught early life comes to a close after her mother's mysterious death. Sent to live with her grandfather, she receives weekly visits from scapegrace dad, whose blue suit, redeemed each Saturday from the pawn shop, lies on public view for the other six days of the week.
The foreign lodger Mr Standik takes a friendly interest, even minting a further name ("Princess"). At 16, though, Winnie is back in Norwich, pregnant, cast out by Aunty Ena and - granddad having vanished - with nowhere to go.
Her salvation, if that is what it is, turns out to be a pair of spiritualists. Bernard Foy and his sister Jean put her to work in church halls crammed with the bereaved. These scenes are the best in the book: Winnie's feyness and spectre-ridden mind seem perfectly suited to the role of clairvoyant. Less promisingly, the Foys introduce to the sinister shoe shop owner Mr Hewitt, with his "devices" (these conclude her pregnancy) and desires, in whose upper room the septuagenarian Winnie will ultimately come to rest.
Though the narrative threads occasionally hang a yard or two out of reach, Remember Me nearly always gains from the obliqueness of the treatment. The greatest mystery, perhaps, is how Azzopardi manages to achieve her effects. There is nothing in the least ostentatious about this almost Dickensian tale of robbed childhoods and broken-down lives, yet out of scattered and flimsy materials a surprisingly sturdy structure emerges.
DJ Taylor's 'Orwell: the life' is published by VintageReuse content