The Hiding Place evokes a time when the city of Cardiff was one of the oldest multi-racial communities in Britain.
This part of Wales was once a magnet for seafarers, merchants and workers from around the world. They arrived from Norway, Spain, Italy and further afield from Somali and the Caribbean, making their home in Butetown, an area near the docklands that came to be known as Tiger Bay.
Tiger Bay exists now only in people’s memories and in popular culture. Most of the original terraced housing was demolished in the 1960s, replaced by an anonymous housing estate and high rise blocks of flats. What remained became a victim of a docklands regeneration scheme in the late 1990s. Even the name Tiger Bay has largely disappeared, the victim of a re-branding to “Cardiff Bay.”
The decline of this once vibrant community forms the backdrop to The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzorpardi, a deeply immersive saga of one Tiger Bay family. Her story of the Gauci family from the early 60s to the end of the nineties is a stark portrayal of the reality of life for many immigrant families in Cardiff in the post-war decades: one of poverty, neglect and mental illness.
Maltese-born Frankie Gauchi arrived in Cardiff as a sailor, intending to stay only long enough to get another passage. But he’s excited by his first glimpse of the city’s tall buildings and wide streets so he stays, marries Mary (an “immigrant” of sorts, having moved to Cardiff from the valleys of South Wales) and becomes the father of six daughters.
It’s the youngest girl Dolores (known as Dol) who acts as the narrator of this bleak tale, starting with her memories of childhood and ending with a return to Tiger Bay to attend her mother’s funeral .
Her memories are fragmented and not fully understood at the time. But it’s hard to deny the power of her first-person, quasi-omniscient viewpoint. Within the first five pages for example we learn that her birth was not a cause for celebration in the Gauci household.
I slept in the chest when I was newborn. My mother told me how she wrapped me in a shawl at night and hid me from my father. He would have smothered you, she said, without malice but with a strange sense of pride, as if I were a Rescue kitten she had taken in
After this inauspicious start, Dol’s life takes a further downward trajectory when she is one month old. In the novel’s most harrowing moment she almost dies in a fire that destroys the family home. Her father, and Dol herself, come to see her resulting maimed hand as an embodiment of the family’s bad luck.
The reality is that the family’s desperate poverty is largely down to Frankie.
Neglectful Father … Broken Mother
He’s a feckless, cruel father and inconsiderate husband. He owns half a cafe, the proceeds from which could ensure there is always food on the table, coal on the fire and the rent is paid. But Frankie is a compulsive gambler who’ll sell anything — even his own daughter — to feed his habit. Though Mary wants to protect her daughters, she buckles under the overwhelming pressure of debt and violence.
Mary turns off the road, almost at a run now, and scales the greasy embankment which leads to the railway line. She climbs up, clawing at the blackened grass and sliding shale. There’s the glinting track, the old timber pond with its skin of algae, the swelling River Taff in the distance. But Mary doesn’t think of these: she just thinks that the Gas Oven is not an option, not with those people sitting in the garden.
As that short extract shows, The Hiding Place is a desolate narrative of trauma and loss in which the disintegration of the Gauci family is mirrored by the decline of their community.
When the adult Dol returns to Cardiff for her mother’s funeral, she sees how the psychological trauma of their childhood continues to affect her sisters and how the streets that were once their playground have been scarred. Redevelopment has given other parts of the city new vitality but the area around her former home has died.
What was once the Evanses’ shop had become a squat block of maisonettes in mustard-yellow brick. Behind them, the crisp outline of a new hotel complex, a half-built car park, a girder swinging from a crane. Most of the streets looked dead, windows smashed, doors boarded up. The sign for Loudoun Place had been spray-painted with stripes of red and gold and green. At the far end used to be The Square, but I could only see a line of dented garage doors, a lamp-post with its wires hanging out like a disembowelling, and a horse, grazing on a patch of stubbled grass.
The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzorpardi: Footnotes
Trezza Azzopardi was born in Cardiff to a Maltese father and Welsh mother. She studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA), where she began writing The Hiding Place (2000), her first novel. This won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction). The book was also adapted for BBC Radio 4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’ and has been translated into 14 languages. She is currently a lecturer at UEA.
Tiger Bay was so named because of the fierce currents around the local tidal stretches of the River Severn.
The Hiding Place is one of the titles featured in my list of 80 books by Welsh authors. It’s the first book I’ve read from my #20booksofsummer reading list.