Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud – Book Club Review

hideous kinky

I recently started a book group with some girls I met through work, and we had our first meeting at the end of July. The first book we read was Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud. Although I had read this book before I thought it would be a good starter for our brand new group.

Esther Freud is the daughter of the artist Lucian Freud and the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud. Although this is a novel it is autobiographical and is based on Freud´s childhood experiences in Morocco.

I first heard of this book when I was a teenager as we got a free DVD of the Hideous Kinky film (2008, starring Kate Winslet) in one of the Sunday papers. I watched the film and was enthralled with the bohemian idea of running off to Morocco. I still love the idea of giving up on conventional life and going wherever the wind takes me.

The book tells the story of a young hippie mother in 1960s England who takes her two young daughters to discover herself in Morocco.  They land in Marrakesh and spend some time there waiting for money to come from England and part begging part performing in the famous Jemaa-el-fna square. One day Julia, the mother, decides she is going to travel to Algiers to a Sufi monastery to study under a Sufi master. She leaves Bea, the older daughter behind in the care of an acquaintance and takes the younger daughter off with her. The book´s title comes from a word game that the girls play, with the only two words they have heard the disturbed wife of their mother´s boyfriend utter, “hideous” and “kinky”.

Throughout the story Bea is highly disapproving of the mother´s laissez faire attitude and insists on being enrolled in school and has that haughty jadedness that children who feel they are responsible can sometimes have. One example is when the younger daughter asks the mother when they can have rice pudding again, and she responds “As soon as the check comes from your father”, to which Bea replies “Sure, father Christmas!”

One of the reasons I love this book so much is because it shows you how a child sees things, for example, the mother´s friend comes to stay with them in Marrakesh and brings her baby along, the narrator and Bea ask her what the baby is called and she responds “Mob” because her father was an anarchist. The girls then ask “What´s an anarchist?”. The novel is full of moments like this where the reader can see the way that a child accepts puzzling adult behaviour.

This novel also reminds me of my own childhood experiences. My mum would often pack my sister and I into the back of the car and drive us up and down the country attending Christian events and conferences. We also moved to Barcelona at an afternoon´s notice when I was six (my mum is from there) Although I mostly have good memories of this time I always had a sense that I just wanted to be normal, like other kids and not speak a different language, or be embarrassed by the way my mum wore jeans to church and everyone else´s mums wore nice dresses. There is a moment that really struck me in the novel when Julia kneels down to pray in the middle of a busy street in Marrakesh and the girls are embarrassed and they ask her not to do it, and she says well, you´re embarrassed by this…my mum used to apply lipstick at the back of the bus. I really related to that childish sense of so desperately wanting to belong.

In our book group discussion one of the strongest themes was the mother´s responsibility and whether the children´s welfare should have come first. There is a scene in which one of the girls has an infection in her lip and Julia waits as long as possible to get medicine because it is expensive. We discussed how far a mother should sacrifice her own desires for her children, and whether the mother in this novel was “bad”.

Hideous Kinky is an enchanting story of freedom and searching that has strong themes that are ideal for a book group discussion. It also has great visual descriptions of Morocco so is a good read for anyone  visiting the country. The film is also worth watching but does not convey the child-adult relationship in quite the same way so loses some of its original charm.

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