A child's life in Wales burned in memory

What an entrance. The first time anybody heard of Trezza Azzopardi, she was nominated for one of the world's most prestigious literary awards. Nestled among books by Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood, there sat "The Hiding Place," a first novel by a recent graduate student, up for this year's Booker Prize. English bookstores scrambled to find copies. Readers in the US were locked out while publishers bid on the domestic rights. Gratefully, Atlantic Monthly Press, the most discerning publisher of literary fiction in America, is releasing the book this week.

Wherever Azzopardi has been hiding, it's been worth the wait. Her novel about the misfortunes of the Gauci family in Cardiff, Wales, burns with the blue flame of long smothered agony. And yet her sophisticated handling of the early-trauma memoir, made so spectacularly popular by Frank McCourt & Co., casts fresh light on the process of memory and the subjectivity of experience.

The story is told by Dolores, the youngest of the Gauci's six girls in a poor Maltese immigrant community. A series of delicately rendered scenes shows the family collapsing in a neighborhood that's slowly being demolished in the 1960s. You can smell the close, grimy quarters of Cardiff in these pages. Azzopardi creates a collection of neighbors pushed alternately to compassion or bitterness by unrelenting poverty.

The children, meanwhile, must navigate this turbulence largely on their own. Dolores's hauntingly cool voice - a hybrid perspective of a child's innocence and an adult's irony - describes the family's decay.

Their father, Frank, is a man given more chances than he deserves. He owns half a cafe that could support them, but he can't shake the thirst for easy wealth, and in the process he starves his family, pushing his wife and one of his daughters into prostitution.

The night Dolores is born, Frank is playing cards with a two-bit gangster, "an archetypal villain who makes sure he looks the part." His friends send him a lie about the birth to raise his spirits: "My father, who is Frankie Bambina to his friends, poor unlucky Frank to have so many daughters, twists in reckless joy, and loses the cafe, the shoebox under the floorboards full with big money, his own father's ruby ring, and my mother's white lace gown…. At least I have a son, he thinks, as he rolls the ring across the worn green felt."

In the novel's most wrenching moment, 1-month-old Dolores is almost burned to death in their apartment. She survives the flames, but loses her wispy new hair, much of her baby-soft skin, and her left hand.

Regarded first as a disappointment for being a girl, by the time Dolores becomes aware of herself, she's aware of herself as a charred embodiment of the family's bad luck.

One of the many frightening talents of this new author is the way she delineates the scale of a child's pain. Tragedies large and small sear Dolores with equivalent effect. When her pet rabbits are killed, for instance, the damage to her seems almost as severe as the loss of her hand.

Their mother loves these girls and fights to save them from their father's carelessness and the social workers' care, but circumstances seem destined to crush her body and mind. She's never free from the terror of having to support six children while lashed to an abusive husband ready to sell off anything and anyone that might bring in a bit of luck or money.

Dolores winds through these events without blame or sentimentality. She has a clear-eyed view of her parents' agony even through the cloud of their shameless irresponsibility. She wants only to retrieve these memories and place them in order, as though that might relieve her of the burden of wishing she could have saved her parents from themselves.

A short section set in the present day at first seems tacked on to this harrowing story of childhood. But it quickly complicates the novel in fascinating ways. Dolores notes, "As with all truth, there is another version." When the sisters gather for the first time in 30 years for their mother's funeral, the air is thick with those other versions - long-nursed grievances, rock-solid denial, and the unquenched need to reconnect with their fellow survivors.

Dolores begins to realize that common experiences don't make for common perceptions or similar needs. Some of her sisters insist she couldn't have witnessed crucial events she recalls with great precision. The oldest sibling has interred the past and insists that no one disturb it. For Dolores, this long-awaited reunion threatens a final separation from her siblings. And yet, as with so much of the suffering in this book, there is a kind of tenacious love beating beneath the surface.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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