A red-haired girl
THE narrator for much of the Trezza Azzopardi's first novel, The Hiding Place (2000), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was a young child. The narrator of Remember Me is a mentally handicapped woman of 72 who reviews her life in a series of flashbacks and reveries. The result is not only a work of exceptional literary skill but also a poignant human document.
This is a story about constant searching and loss, change and acceptance, confusion and revelation. The search is on different levels. There is the old woman's hunt for the girl who burst into her room in a derelict house and made off with the battered suitcase containing all her possessions. The real quest however, is for her own identity and for a meaning to the events which have shaped the years.
Called Patsy when she lived with her parents, Lillian when she was sent to her grandfather's, Princess to the lodger Mr. Stadnik (perhaps the person who best understood her needs), Beauty to the boy with whom she lay in the bushes when evacuated to the Fens during the Second World War, Winifred for her transformation by Bernard and Jean Foy into a clairvoyant, she finally becomes Win after living, until she "reformed", in a poorhouse run by nuns. Her red, frizzy hair which made other children call her "Pikey" set her apart as much as her backwardness. Well-meaning people have tried to disguise this feature and thus deny her whole being. Her grandfather used to send her to school in a beret, then he and Mr. Stadnik dyed her hair golden, while the Foys gave her a black wig, the hair of a Russian virgin.
All the people in Win's story, who in turn take charge of her and give her new rules to obey, are restricted in what they can do. She is limited by the range of her mental powers; they by their lack of knowledge about how to deal with her, and by their poverty. This is a world of subsistence living. A father takes his suit out of the pawnshop each week when he visits his daughter; hungry children scour the fields for vegetable roots; an old man collects the rubbish thrown away by those who are richer. Each character is revealed in telling detail through the eyes of the narrator who accepts them all, from her mother, mysteriously wasting away in bed, to sinister Mr. Hewitt, the shoemaker, who takes away her chance of a future and links her to her own beginnings. She records their actions with startling clarity, though she cannot see their true significance. Many dark and bright threads are slowly twisted together.
As Win recounts her history, she shows that she may never have learned to tie her shoelaces but she can invent her own explanations for the mysteries of life. Magic becomes her logic. No one tells her that the objects which disappear from her mother's room, down to her hairbrush, have been sold to buy medicines, and the reader only gradually realises this. She deduces that the "ghosts" her mother says are bothering her must be stealing them: she believes in those ghosts. Her regrets are the same as anyone's: "No one comes back; not my grandfather, or my father, or my mother".
The story, with its horrific yet plausible denouement, is gripping but it is the narrator's personality that lingers in the mind. Superficially passive, she is in fact consistent and purposeful, seeking elusive happiness. Azzopardi manages to depict her without sentimentality or condescension. (David Cook had the same light touch with his "backward" hero in his 1978 novel Walter.) The winding narrative is vivid but matter-of-fact, with flashes of poetic brilliance. Trezza Azzopardi's final achievement is to show how little we know about what goes on inside the minds of people who cannot share their thoughts with the world.
Remember Me, Trezza Azzopardi, Picador, p.262, £16.99. 0 330 49345 0© The Times Literary Supplement
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