When I saw this fantastic competition from The Works, I couldn’t resist. They’re asking travel bloggers to write a post about their most memorable reading experience while travelling, in tribute to the upcoming film of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. You can find out more about the competition here.
While I was in Morocco earlier this year, I re-read Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky on a twelve hour bus journey from Marrakech – where the book is set – to the tiny town of Merzouga, on the edge of the Sahara. Reading the book as a young girl was one of the first things to make me want to visit Marrakech, so I had brought it with me knowing that Morocco was the perfect place to re-visit the fiction in it’s own setting.
After five intense days in the most hectic city I’ve ever visited, the bus journey was the first moment I’d gotten where I could stop and think, let alone pick up a book. We cruised away from Marrakech and I settled down to Hideous Kinky, alternating between reading and gazing for long periods out of the window at the North African countryside. Hideous Kinky itself opens with a journey, an arrival by ferry from Spain and a long drive in a camper van across the country to Marrakech. The narrator, Lucy, and her older sister Bea are travelling with ‘mum’, and her two friends. The mysteriously silent Maretta, seemingly rude and presumably involved in some unmentioned fight with the girls’ mum, gives the book it’s title with the only two words Lucy and Bea ever hear her speak. Mesmerised by strange and interesting words, the girls turn them into a game, and mingle them into chants with other words like “roofrack” and “coca cola”. They seem far more amazed by the quirks of the English language than by the brand new country speeding outside the van window, which they take as matter of fact, or by the reasons for their sudden elopement. As a result we never really find these out, a theme which runs throughout the book.
As we drove along a seemingly endless straight road, the shifting landscape right outside the window gave the characters’ journey a vivid sense of reality. First wide expanses of weed-strewn ground littered with spindly date palms zipped past; La Palmerie. For an oasis, the land looked fairly barren, except for islands of carefully cultivated green; the lush grasses of golf courses and luxury estates. Later, the as road climbed upwards, the landscape grew greener; forested hillsides and deep, grassy valleys. We snaked along the edge of mountains, gradually nearing the oppressive grey sky, while to our left the cliff-sides fell away dramatically. Far below, skinny rivers wound through valleys, silver in the sunlight, banked by thin strips of farmland and small, one storey homesteads. Once we were way up in the mountains, green was replaced by brown. The road skirted exposed rock and craggy, purplish peaks. The air became misty with rain. We descended along a shining wet road in snakes alarmingly tight, hearts in our mouths.
Beyond the mountains, the land straightened out into wide, barren plains, almost endless flats of pinkish, lifeless rubble, occasionally pierced by huge red boulders and rocky, orange hills. On the horizon were jagged outcrops of far-off peaks, mauve and misty in the distance. Everything else was monotone, flat, pink. The colour recalled every wall and every street in Marrakech, that same dry, dusty clay, the colour of a sunset in pastels. By this time, the characters of Hideous Kinky were already well established in Marrakech, lost in the narrow streets, the dark corners, the cluttered crowds, the wailing call to prayer. Everything about this book, told from the jumbled perspective of the five year old main character, with all the unreliability and distortion of a childhood memory, took me straight back to the city I had just left. The colour palette outside set the scene, while inside the bus, the guttural foreign chatter, the endless hacking and coughing and throat clearing, the whining Arabic music from the stereo, all added to the ambience. My nostrils filled with the smells of body odour and spicy food smuggled aboard, and it smelled just like the Djemma el Fna; I was there with Lucy and Bea as they played and lost themselves, or chatted to street performers, urchins, and vendors.
It felt as though I was taking Marrakech with me. In the towns, we passed locals with berber in their blood and spirit, and their dark faces and staring eyes peopled Lucy’s Marrakech, filling the winding streets with crowds more real than any I’ve ever read. I rebuilt the city from the sun-scorched red clay that littered the plains we sped past. Somehow, this was a better setting for the book than the city itself, as though I had been given all the right colours, but I could still paint the picture myself. I could look up from reading and see the very world that the book was built from. It was the perfect on the road reading moment.
When I read Hideous Kinky the first time, I had never heard of Morocco. My mind summoned dark, hazy images of narrow streets, cluttered apothecaries, mysterious Arabs in strange costumes, stifling crowds pressing around acrobats and storytellers. When I visited Marrakech, these old, half-forgotten imaginings were brought to life before my eyes. The book creates a perfect sense of place; Lucy’s jumbled memories – sometimes half-forgotten or filled in by her imagination, but always spot-on, with colours and smells exactly rendered – capture the spirit of a city which is just as confused and jumbled.
With the story unfolding in a fragmented and clouded way, the fairly adult issues are combated with the frank innocence of childhood; her mother’s relationship with acrobat Bilal, Lucy’s longing for the father she has forgotten, the family’s frightening situation in a foreign country with no fixed abode or income. Half the time, our narrator doesn’t know what is going on, and we can only infer what is happening based on the clues which Lucy herself doesn’t understand and dismisses. Lucy is young enough that she takes everything as it comes, never worrying or reading into anything, but the readers know enough to understand. Their poverty, the bad examples set by their mother, the accidental tasting of hashish, mum’s half-abandonment of Bea in her quintessentially 60’s quest to find herself. Freud knows exactly how readers will interpret these situations, and doesn’t need to lumber the book with worry or judgement.
When I read it again, as an adult, I realised how beautifully Freud captures the dreamlike inconsistency of childhood memory. I also realised just how accurately she has captured the atmosphere of a city which seems, in the book, largely fantastic. Out in the desert wasteland – plains of pink rubble lined with red cliffs – I could still see the intricate maze of the medina, with its shadowy streets and strange shops towering with silver teapots or colourful moccasins. A beautiful story, told simply and without the adult fuss of interpretation or understanding, Hideous Kinky allowed me to carry a lingering memory of Marrakech on the road with me.