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With Mum in Morocco : HIDEOUS KINKY, <i> By Esther Freud (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $18.95; 224 pp.)</i>

<i> Karbo is the author of two novels, "Trespassers Welcome Here" and "The Diamond Lane."</i>

The succulent irony of Esther Freud’s first novel, “Hideous Kinky,” is captured in its title. On the surface there’s nothing kinky or hideous about this beguiling tale of two young girls in the mid-'60s dragged from England to Morocco by their adventure-seeking Mum. Instead, the phrase refers to a key rule in a game of tag invented by the older sister, Bea: If, on the verge of being caught, she yells “Hideous Kinky!” it doesn’t count. Hideous and kinky were the only words ever uttered by the apparently catatonic wife of Mum’s boyfriend.

After setting up housekeeping in a cheap hotel in Marrakech, Mum, Bea and the 5-year-old unnamed narrator live in happy hippie squalor. They are visited by Linda, a friend of Mum’s from England, whose child, Mob, was sired by an anarchist and whose diapers create havoc in the hotel. The women across the way steal the nappies while they’re hanging out to dry. One day the narrator spies one of the culprits wearing one as a turban.

Meanwhile, Mum falls in love with Bilal, the minion of a local mystic, who performs back flips from a standing position and befriends the narrator. Bilal is friend, father-figure and mentor, teaching the girls gymnastics and how to rid a stray dog of ticks using a cigarette. He takes the family on holiday to a nearby lake where they cook outside and sleep in a tent made from a blanket draped over a washing line. Although Mum is devoted to la vie boheme , the girls possess the usual appetites of the bourgeoisie. One day they spy a red pedal car being driven across the water by a lady in a pink bikini.

“ ‘Bea and I threw ourselves at him. Can we go? Please? Will you take us on a pedal car?’

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“Bilal shook us off. I had never seen him angry before. ‘You don’t want that. It’s rubbish. Of no use.’ ”

Esther Freud, the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud and daughter of the painter Lucien Freud, has a gift for unstated hilarity that is most evident in the sections that play First World childhood antics against the exotic--and exceedingly well-rendered--Moroccan locale.

When Mum sends the girls to an Indian guru, each to be given a mantra, they get together afterward and say, “I’ll tell mine if you tell yours.”

When Mum embraces Sufism and, obeying the dictates of the faith, drops to the ground to pray at the prescribed hour, the girls hide behind a wall and pretend they don’t know her. “Children are always embarrassed by their mothers,” says Mum. “My mother used to put her lipstick on on the top deck of the bus.”

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Esther Freud is also adroit at capturing the way adult follies appear to a child. The narrator’s observations of adult behavior are brutally accurate, but her young age leaves her unable to perceive the implications. When Linda decides to return to London because her mother has never seen Mob, Mum says that her mother wouldn’t even know about the existence of her two girls, “except a friend of hers saw me waiting at a bus stop in Camden Town with a baby in a push chair and Bea who was nearly three.” The family wreckage this benign comment points to is lost on the narrator, but not on us.

The most complex character is the not entirely sympathetic Mum who, because she is seen through the eyes of her 5-year-old daughter, is both larger than life and an utter cipher. Mum is a lost soul, dedicated to putting her own muddled quest or who-knows-what before the needs of her daughters. Their medical problems are either ignored or treated with some potion purchased from the Moroccan equivalent of a snake-oil salesman. One tin of miracle cream meant to cure the narrator’s rash turns out to be shoe polish. Still, despite Mum’s flakiness, despite the fact that Bea and her sister live on the cusp of neglect, the three hang together. More, their love for one another is genuine and enduring.

The final chapters of “Hideous Kinky” are a collection of tiny, shattering moments. Without a dirham to her name, Mum embarks on an exhausting pilgrimage to a holy mosque in the north. Bea is left behind with an acquaintance and the narrator is hauled along. Day in, day out, she is forced to sit in prayer in a room so close that perspiration collects on the walls. “The prayers lasted for a whole afternoon and by the evening the walls of the room were awash with water. It collected in gullies and soaked into the carpet. One by one the children at the back of the room curled up on the floor and fell asleep as the men’s voices rose up and up like sounds of the distant sea.”

In the end, the life of the young heroine does indeed seem a little hideous, a little kinky. Still, we are left with the impression that Bea and her sister won’t regret having had such an offbeat upbringing. This is tricky to convey but, like the sword swallowers in the marketplace, Esther Freud manages to make it look effortless.

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