Dolores Gauci, the narrator of "The Hiding Place" and the last and least wanted of six daughters, is burned in a kitchen fire just a month after her birth. Her left hand is permanently deformed. "I go back, and try to piece together how it was," she says of the disastrous family history that made her a casualty. "I think there must be a design." What she reconstructs does eventually form a wild and complex pattern, the kind that seems to keep shifting before your eyes even though you can discern its overall logic.
Some novels lure you into their fictional worlds sheerly through the power of their language; others rely on their stories to seduce you. "The Hiding Place," set in a scruffy, intrigue-filled neighborhood of Maltese immigrants in Cardiff, Wales, hooks you both ways. As Dolores relates the calamitous chain of events that eventually blew apart the Gaucis, her limber voice seems to hover just above the action, creating suspense and emotional impact in equal measure.
Her story brims with strong-willed, vivid characters. Frankie Gauci, Dolores' father, is a wily, sweet-talking gambler with gangsterish leanings, while her mother, Mary, is a moody, working-class Welsh girl who's in over her head raising six kids with the unpredictable Frankie. Everything's always ready to boil over. Frankie once owned a half-share in a cafe but lost it and is in constant battle mode with the other Maltese men he now works for; Mary works the night shift at a bakery and spends her afternoons drinking or stealing time with Frankie's archrival, Joe Medora while her street-tough daughters act as lookouts. Frankie grows increasingly depraved as his debts and resentments pile up; Mary has a secret life of her own. One sister is mysteriously absent, apparently given to Medora in payment for a debt; another is a pyromaniac. A wedding that seems to offer the family hope ends in a murder, and soon enough Dolores and her remaining sisters are left virtual orphans.
It's not until the novel's second half that we fully understand what's been driving Dolores to re-create her family's story. As Dolores returns to Cardiff for the first time as an adult, we realize that she has no idea what has become of any of her relatives or the other protagonists in the meltdown of her early life. She sets about tracking them down and some questions are answered, but others are left hanging right up to the novel's devastating final sentence. Even then, we're left wanting more: For one thing, what exactly has happened to Dolores in the intervening years? Azzopardi gives us clues but leaves a lot unspoken. Some readers may find this withholding frustrating, but it makes sense: The way to understand the kind of elaborate, multigenerational adversity that afflicts the Gaucis, she seems to suggest, is not by nailing down the details but by perceiving the larger design.
"The Hiding Place" was nominated for last year's Booker Prize, which went to "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood, a writer with whom Azzopardi shares some qualities: a prose style that's somehow both impassioned and cool, and an ability to reveal her characters' great suffering without asking us to pity them. There's an aura of dignity around all of Azzopardi's people, those, like Dolores, who manage to escape as well as those who don't. You can't help understanding their drive to steer their own course, even as you watch them career out of control, into the realm of lost souls.