Hideous Kinky (Penguin Essentials)

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9780241973660: Hideous Kinky (Penguin Essentials)

Esther Freud's best-known novel, which inspired the Kate Winslet film, published as Penguin Essential for the first time. Two little girls are taken by their mother to Morocco on a 1960s pilgrimage of self-discovery. For Mum it is not just an escape from the grinding conventions of English life but a quest for personal fulfilment; her children, however, seek something more solid and stable amidst the shifting desert sands. 'Just open the book and begin, and instantly you will be first of all charmed, then intrigued and finally moved by this fascinating story' Spectator.

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Hideous Kinky begins as a small, cheerful autobiographical novel following Thurber's variation on Wordsworth: "Humor is emotional chaos recollected in tranquillity." In the mid-1960s, two girls, ages 5 and 7, travel with their mother from London to Marrakech. Also along for the ride are John, Mum's boyfriend, and Maretta, John's wife. Though the author is a descendant of Sigmund Freud, the title of her first book has little to do with the pleasure principle. Instead, it is the only phrase the sisters have heard Maretta speak, one that quickly becomes an all-purpose epithet: "One of the shepherds whistled and the dogs slung to the ground. Bea raised an eyebrow as she passed me. 'Hideous kinky,' she whispered." Esther Freud's vocabulary and tone veer easily from the childlike to the more sophisticated, particularly when she recounts speech or circumstances beyond a child's comprehension.

Once the group arrives in Marrakech, John and Maretta split off, and Mum hooks up with various men and pursues spirituality. The children, meanwhile, want nothing more than to be normal--or at least not to be so embarrassed by their mother's Islamic fervor: "'Oh Mum, please...' I was prepared to beg. 'Please don't be a Sufi.'" In Hideous Kinky, people appear and disappear with little reason or explanation. Though most of the characters are differentiated by one outstanding feature, Bilal, the itinerant builder and magician's apprentice who becomes one of Mum's lovers, is more complex. The narrator loves and trusts him from the start, and when she asks him if he will eventually return to England with them, "Bilal closed his eyes and began to hum along with Om Kalsoum, whose voice crackled and wept through a radio in the back of the café."

Hideous Kinky is curiously divided. The first half is a lark. The girls explore Marrakech, picking up the language and even passing themselves off as beggars. The family's only worries are about money, and these are soon cured by the next bank draft from their father. But the second half is more melancholy. Mum's religious zeal becomes rather less endearing, and as the girls' adventures turn more dangerous, local rituals and customs begin to lose their charm: "I didn't like to think about the camel festival. The camel, garlanded in flowers, collected us from our house in the Mellah, and we had followed it out of the city and high into the mountains in a procession of singing." The parade ends, however, with the animal's beheading. "Occasionally I looked at Bea to see if she was running over these events like I was, the sound effects living their own life behind her eyes, but she gave nothing away."

In the end, Hideous Kinky is a novel less about an exotic country seen through an innocent's eyes than about family, about having a deeply embarrassing mother, an older sister who does everything before you, and a distant father. It escapes sentimentality through simplicity: "Bilal was my Dad. No one denied it when I said so." The author, her sister, and her mother spent two years in Morocco, and while Esther Freud may not have invented her subject, she has re-created it with a light touch and delicate irony.

About the Author:

ESTHER FREUD was born in 1963 and lives in London. Her previous novels are Hideous Kinky, which was made into a film starring Kate Winslet, Peerless Flats, Gaglow and The Wild.

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