Frankie is an unusual six-year-old. He’s a loner. He reads the Manchester Guardian. He hates cartoons because “nobody can be flat.” And when he finds his mother’s dead body slumped in an armchair, he doesn’t cry, scream, or call the police. He sits down next to her.
Patti, his mom, is “cold as a statue in a church.” Her mouth hangs open, and she smells “like cat’s pee.” Frankie can’t see himself in the pupils of her unblinking eyes, and, the boy notes, he can’t see her in there either. Nevertheless, he covers her body in a blanket, crawls up beside it, and spends the night. Before he leaves for school the next morning, he gives her a kiss. This behaviour is but one example of a larger theme: a fascination with death. When his Uncle Jack dies, Frankie insists on attending the funeral so he can “see the hole.” Asked to imagine something wonderful, he recounts the demise of his pet mice. Is this unsettling fixation a by-product of childhood naïveté? Or is it indicative of something more sinister? It’s difficult to say.
Here I Am! is told from Frankie’s point of view: he is precocious and observant, but ultimately he’s unreliable. The distinction between truth and untruth plagues first-person narratives — even more so when the narrator’s age is a single digit. Such young voices have been depicted before, of course. Roald Dahl was a master at it; the protagonists of Matilda, The Witches, and The BFG are five and a half, seven, and eight, respectively. More recently, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close featured a nine-year-old, trying to understand the 9/11 attacks, in the driver’s seat. But getting a child’s voice right is like juggling while chewing gum. Writers must simplify their diction yet maintain coherence. And that coherence can’t come at the expense of believability. It’s a delicate trick — one that, in the case of Here I Am!, yields mixed results.
Pauline Holdstock is brave to try. Born in the United Kingdom, she emigrated to Victoria in 1974 and spent ten years as a teacher before beginning a writing career. Aside from a robust collection of novels — Here I Am! is her ninth — she’s published some sixty short stories, essays, reviews, and poems. She’s won the Prairie Fire Personal Journalism Prize, the Ethel Wilson Award, and the Malahat Novella Contest. Her sixth novel, Beyond Measure, about a servant in Renaissance Italy, was shortlisted for the Giller in 2004.
Here I Am! moves at a brisk pace. Arriving at school, Frankie tells his teacher, Miss Kenney, that his mother is dead — twice — but she doesn’t believe him. So he hatches a plan, sneaking aboard a cruise ship, the Gloriana, that’s bound for France. He plans to, upon arrival, convince the police to contact his estranged father, Len. However, there’s a problem: the ship is actually heading in the opposite direction, toward New York. Oh, and it’s the late fifties. There are no cellphones.
Don’t let that catastrophic mistake fool you. Frankie is probably a genius. In one of the book’s best scenes, Miss Kenney drags him into the school’s busy staff room, turns on the radio, transcribes a healthy chunk of a weather report, and asks him to repeat it. He begins quoting the chatter of the teachers around him, starting from the second he entered the room. Before he can get to the report, Miss Kenney, in shock, interrupts: “Go outside. Just go out to play.”
Throughout the novel, he quotes verbatim ship announcements, detailed lists, and lengthy stretches of dialogue. And he’s aware of the uncommon nature of his talent: “You probably think I am making up the words but I am remembering them. I remember all the separate words people say.” The maturity of his self-awareness is counterbalanced by his emotional cluelessness. He jokes about throwing a blind acquaintance, Gordon Knight, overboard; at the end of the book, he describes his father’s teary embrace as a “real nuisance.” Again, we ask ourselves: Is this because he’s a child, or are there nefarious forces at work?
Here, that pesky phrase “suspension of disbelief” comes to mind. Frankie’s awesome intelligence is, of course, the justification for his having written a novel at the age of six. It’s a little cheap, but okay. Unfortunately, there are more substantial issues.
First is the overly affected prose. Are we supposed to believe that a child with an eidetic memory who spells complex words correctly, converts feet to inches without trouble, and offhandedly references Robinson Crusoe doesn’t know the difference between “a” and “an”? Or that “MyDad” and “MyMum” are separate words? Perhaps such foibles are meant to remind us that we’re reading a six-year-old narrator. But, in fact, they remind us we’re reading a grown-up’s impression of one.
As it turns out, even the novel acknowledges that slippage. And here is a second problem. Holdstock attempts to sidestep the issue of narrative reliability with an epilogue, in which an older Frankie (now Frank) spends a paltry sixteen pages reflecting on the manuscript he penned as a child. It’s implied that he, now a fifty-something professor at Cambridge, may have edited his younger self. “My writing’s terrible,” he laments, having twice read through the green exercise books he filled all those years ago.
It’s a unique form of a deus ex machina, ham-fistedly inserting a character into the close of a story to justify an unconvincing narrative voice. It implies that any problems we have with the child’s expressions are to be attributed to the elder Frankie’s handiwork, not to the author herself. By extension, it also implies that any sense of dissatisfaction we may feel was intentionally built into the narrative. This smuggle-through-customs justification is underhanded at best, catastrophic at worst. Frank mentions that My Trip was the title of the original book, the one his six-year-old self had written. I wish Holdstock had committed more fully to young Frankie’s voice by ironing out the sore spots and omitting the afterword. I’d like to have read that book. I’d like to have read My Trip.
That said, in other elements, Here I Am! enthralls. The eschewed commas and quotation marks highlight Frankie’s disorientation in unfamiliar territory. And the precise adjectives and enumerations — he “drew fifty-six wavy lines”; “I washed my hands fourteen times” — underscore his uncanny intelligence. Further, when Holdstock intersperses Frankie’s voice with those of the secondary characters, including Len, Miss Kenney, and Gordon Knight, the results are generally good. Her depiction of Len mourning the demise of Patti is heart-wrenching, if melodramatic: “I’d give my whole life, I wouldn’t care. Just to have you back.” Miss Kenney, overwhelmed by guilt at having disregarded her pupil’s cries for help, thrills too. It’s a shame we don’t get her reaction to his return.
There are even spots that truly charm, like the nighttime conversation between Gordon Knight and Frankie. They’re sitting on the deck of the ship and Gordon asks the boy what he can see. He replies,
Well you know it’s all black right? Well then it’s like someone threw glitter on it millions and millions of glitter bits and they all stuck so now it’s like tiny tiny lights and some are sort of right on the ceiling and some are higher up sort of past the ceiling.
When, later in the novel, Frankie looks up again and imagines his mother in that “great big field where you could go to play,” you forget for a moment not only that this is an adult writing, but that Frankie isn’t a real child at all.