by Trezza Azzopardi
Trezza Azzopardi’s first book, The Hiding Place, was shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize and is a first-person account of a Maltese child growing up in Tiger Bay, Cardiff. In her second novel, Remember Me, the heroine — also a first-person narrator — is again something of an outsider.
This fictional memoirist is an elderly woman looking back on the stern upbringing that has severely hampered her mental development.
Patsy — later called Lillian when sent to live with her grandfather after her mother’s suicide — does not complain and seldom fully understands the implications of what she is relating.
The reader, on the other hand, can perceive the awfulness of her life and the cruelty of the losses she suffers. When the book opens, the narrator — now homeless, in her 70s and called Winifred — has recently taken refuge in a deserted house.
Suddenly, a red-haired girl bursts into her sanctuary and disappears as quickly as she came, taking Winifred’s few possessions with her. It is this peculiar event that preci- pitates the elderly woman’s search for her past (“remember[ing] me”), for her identity, for meaning and for the girl who has robbed her.
One of the few comforting facts of Winifred’s life has been the friendship of Mr Stadnik, her grandfather’s lodger, who calls her Princess.
Another brief ray of warmth comes from the boy she meets during World War II, when she is evacuated to the Fens.
For the rest, though, her life is without joy and at 15 and pregnant, she is sent away to face attempted suicide, back-street abortion, incarceration and privation of every kind.
The story emerges in fragments, taking some startling turns and the pieces only fully come together when, at the end of the novel, Winifred is face to face with the girl who stole her belongings.
Only then, too, can the reader really see the skill of Azzopardi’s narrative structure, though the simple brilliance of her descriptions has been evident throughout.
This is the story of a desolate life affectingly told, and the character of the narrator is wonderfully conveyed in all its sadness, misunderstanding, loss, short shafts of light and ultimate sense of displacement and exclusion.