The new novel from Victoria writer Pauline Holdstock begins with six-year-old Frankie sneaking aboard a ship bound for France. His mother has just died, and Frankie’s plan is to cross the ocean, find a police station, and call his father to pick him up. It’s not the best of plans – his father isn’t in France, for starters – but you have to cut Frankie some slack: he’s just a kid and he’s got some troubles all his own.
After all, he’s the one who found his mother’s body, sitting upright in her fluffy dressing gown, eyes open and staring sightlessly. “And now I will have to stop telling you this because I have thought of something bad. It is very difficult to think about and I can’t do rocking and writing at the same time. You know what they call rocking. Unhelpful behaviour. I’ll just stop for a minute and do counting.” It’s the early 1950s and Frankie is different from other children (today, he would probably be located on the autism spectrum, though Holdstock does not identify his condition in the novel).
Despite its underlying darkness, Here I Am! reads at first like an adventure. Frankie sneaks around the ship, steals food, finds places to sleep, and even begins to develop a friendship with a blind man and his dog. Things get complicated, though, when Frankie realizes he’s not bound for France at all, and his time on the ship is going to be longer – and more fraught – than he had imagined.
Holdstock writes powerfully in Frankie’s voice, drawing readers into his internal life in a manner reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She plays well with the ironic distance the voice provides; the reader understands more of Frankie’s situation than he does himself, while also being keenly aware of what Frankie is probably like to those around him. It’s a powerful, absorbing approach that deepens and fuels an otherwise fairly straightforward narrative.
This delicate balance, however, wavers when Holdstock includes other narrative voices, including point-of-view sections from Frankie’s grandmother, teacher, and father, along with Gordon, the blind man Frankie befriends on the ship. While there is a bit of a payoff in each of these sections, which serve to fill in elements of Frankie’s backstory and what transpires while he is missing, they rob the book of some of its mystery and keen subtext. It’s not, ultimately, critical, but one misses the intimacy of the unspoken, the understanding of the unexplained.