I first encountered Esther Freud’s novel Hideous Kinky while in graduate school in Dublin. Childhood had a powerful grip on my imagination at the time, and I had just started writing The Girl in the Garden, featuring an eleven-year-old narrator. At this early stage, I found myself struggling with how to balance my twenty-three years of experience with my desire to authentically capture the perspective of a young girl. One day at the beginning of our weekly creative writing workshop, my friend and classmate dropped a slender paperback with a bright cover onto my desk. “Read this,” she said. “I think it will help you.”
Hideous Kinky. I was intrigued by the eccentric title, and by the fact that it was touted as a semi-autobiographical account written by Sigmund Freud’s great granddaughter. I walked back to my flat through the rain, and sat near the kitchen window overlooking a murky canal. As soon as I opened the book, I was plunged into the vibrant world of 1960s Morocco, revealed to me through the eyes of an unnamed five-year-old girl from England, traveling with her free-spirited mother and much-adored elder sister.
Hideous Kinky is at once a beguiling adventure, a colorful travelogue, and a wistful tale about the joys, the disappointments, and the hopes of childhood. In those hours of reading, I discovered Morocco, a place I have never physically visited. I felt the rustle of shimmering silk caftans against my skin, sipped from steaming bowls of bissara at open-air cafes in the Djemaa El Fna, and grew light-headed as sugary slivers of cannabis-laced majoun dissolved on my tongue.
In the first chapter, the sisters are fascinated by a disturbed friend of their mother’s, a woman whom they have only ever heard utter two words: “Hideous” and “Kinky.” These words, along with other grown-up turns-of-phrase they pick up along the way (“helufa,” “anarchist,” “polio” “shithouse”) become a game to the girls, a refrain that is in turns both absurd and haunting. While they may not grasp the exact meaning behind these bits and pieces overheard from the rotating roster of adults around them, they understand their potency.
As the story progressed, I surfaced from the heroine’s wondrous point of view, and was overcome by a very adult anger and sadness. I had fallen in love with these sisters, and wanted them to find the normalcy and stability they craved. I wanted their mother to put their interests ahead of her own. Morocco was entrancing, but it was time for her to take them home already. When the heroine grasps the hand of Bilal, her mother’s charismatic on-again-off-again lover, who weaves in and out of their lives, and asks: “Bee-lal, am I your little girl?” my own childhood feelings came rushing back, that deep yearning to belong somewhere and to someone.
Freud’s spare and poetic prose not only exposed me to a strange new world, but took me back to the self I used to be. By the time I had finished the last page, my creativity was rejuvenated. I return to Hideous Kinky again and again, when I want to be transported to another time and place, or to remember what it felt like to be that young and guileless, or simply to be inspired.