Azzopardi brings the immigrant and poverty-stricken underbelly of Cardiff, Wales, during the 1960s to disturbing life as a young child bears witness to the gradual disintegration of her troubled family.
Dolores “Dol” Gauci is one of six daughters of Frankie Gauci, a Maltese immigrant, and his Welsh wife Mary. A charming but unlucky gambler, Frankie loses his money, his home, and his share in the Moonlight Café the night Dolores is born. Months later the infant Dol loses most of her left hand in a house fire while her mother is attempting to seduce the rent collector out of his money. For what he sees as the good of the family, Frankie barters away one of Dol’s older sisters, who may or may not be Frankie’s daughter. Out of misguided protectiveness, he gives another in marriage to an older, wealthier man. And he beats a third sister, the elusive Fran, and later sends her to the “home” when she’s accused of pyromania. Fran’s story, though never clear or complete, is the heart of the novel: she is the one who carries the family’s guilt and vulnerability on her shoulders. Frankie, who, for all his sins, tries repeatedly to be a husband and father, finally abandons the family. Mary, less than stable to begin with, has a mental breakdown, and the remaining daughters are dispersed to foster care. The unrelenting darkness of these events is bearable only because Dol’s knowledge is more sensory than factual. She tells her story in fragments, which take time to evolve into a meaningful pattern, but gradually the individual Gaucis, their Maltese gangster associates, and their working-class Welsh neighbors come to life through a child’s perceptions: slightly tilted, incomplete, yet remarkably perceptive.
Like the gritty world they inhabit, Azzopardi’s characters command a ragged, sharp-edged dignity in this haunting debut.