Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock

Sometimes I forget that MyMum is dead. But that is probably better than remembering.

Frankie‘s Mum has died and nobody will listen. His Dad is away for work, he doesn’t want to tell his Gran (for fear he will have to stay at her house), and his teacher doesn’t believe him. So he comes up with his own plan: Get on a ship to France, find a police station, and call his Dad to come get him. And it might have all gone the way he hoped, except that Frankie got on the wrong ship and is headed to New York.

Anyway I was exhausted. I was exhausted for what had happened to MyMum and exhausted for trying to make people understand and exhausted of being mad with them and their stupid faces and all of their stupid lies you can hear in their stupid voices when they say things they don’t really mean and you know they don’t understand and they think you are lying anyway when you are not.

The story takes place in the early 1950s and is told mainly through Frankie, almost as though he is writing a daily journal, or recording a daily vlog. We soon realize that Frankie is no ordinary child; he is insightful and wise beyond his six years. He knows he needs to stay away from anyone who might question him about who he is traveling with and which room he is staying in. He knows he can’t let anyone see him slipping into his sleeping spot at night. He soon figures out that he is allowed to eat in the dining room with everyone else without having to pay extra, but he also knows it will be suspicious if he is always sitting alone. So he befriends the blind man – hoping that he can sit beside him without being detected.

The next thing after breakfast is brush your teeth and I didn’t have a toothbrush so that was my next job. Look for one. It was good to have important things to think about and important problems like washing yourself and finding food and toothbrushes. It was better than remembering your Mum. In the Atlantic. If you didn’t have important things I expect you would go mad like the man up the road.

But Frankie isn’t always so pragmatic. He can’t help but think of his Mum and Dad at times – he gets sad, and confused about the nature of death.

Can a dead person be in two places? I don’t know what you can do when you’re dead. Besides nothing. When I asked MyMum if it hurt being a skeleton like the one in the chemist’s where she gets her medicine she said dead people don’t see or hear or feel or anything. She didn’t say they didn’t know anything. But they probably don’t. They probably forget everything. Like their name and their family and the whole world. But then MyDad told me that dead people live on. He told me that when my Granddad died. I said What do you mean? MyMum said He means inside our minds. In our hearts. … She might have been right because she was inside my head when I was waiting to go to sleep and it seemed as if she was alive. So if she was in my head she must know all my lies. The ones about her anyway. So I said sorry. In my head.

And, as with all children, there are moments of awe…

Sometimes you think you know everything and then you look and you find a new thing. Like I thought the Milky Way was in Cornwall. It is like a river in the sky. MyDad showed it to me when we went to Mullion’s Cove to go camping but guess what? I could see it on the boat even though we were nearly in America. Isn’t that amazing? It is like being inside a magic trick.

Minor narrators in the book include Frankie’s Gran, Frankie’s Dad Len, his teacher Miss Kenney, and Gordon Knight (the Blind Man).

Gran is the one who discovers the death of her daughter-in-law, as well as the fact that Frankie is missing.

Dear Lord. I still don’t believe it, seeing her like that. I knew at once she weren’t alive, even with the curtains closed. I said, Patti? I don’t know why I was whispering. Patti? She could have been a waxwork. If you didn’t know. If you forgot to breathe. … I wanted to get out quick but my God, poor Patti. I put the end of my sleeve over my nose and went over to her. I didn’t like to look at her face, it seemed indecent with her mouth open. But I wanted her to know it was me and I’d come and I’d help her, so I touched the back of her hand. Cold as a statue in a church.

Len is on his way home for the weekend, having just left the bed of another woman. So our guard is up right away about his character. But when Len learns what has happened, Frankie immediately becomes his priority, and we begin to learn more about Len and Patti’s complicated relationship.

His mind is racing, switching gears, switching track. It was a traffic accident. A bus overturned. They’re in the hospital. He can’t think fast enough to trap the narrative he needs, the story of what happened while he was driving the A3 down from Ipswich. Why didn’t he leave earlier? He could have been home sooner. Perhaps even in time to stop whatever it was. But he knows why. He likes the drive. He makes it last. It gives him time to catch his breath between the pleasurable creaking of the bed in the room over the pub and the emotional onslaught that will greet him at the door.

I found Miss Kenney‘s narration especially compelling. Imagine being notified about Frankie and his Mum and realizing that the annoying little boy you were brushing off at school the day before was actually telling you the truth. And now he is missing. Let’s just say it ruined her relaxing weekend in front of the TV with her tea and cakes.

They only found her on Friday. So she was probably only poorly when he told me. He was just exaggerating to get attention. Or making it up. Like when he told me there’s a bird that can fly backwards. He must have been because he wasn’t even crying, was he? His mum had probably been cross with him and so he was in trouble and that’s what he was wishing. That’s the most likely. No one’s going to tell me it happened on Wednesday. He never said anything at all to me at school on Thursday, did he? He would have talked about something that important and I would have remembered. You wouldn’t forget a thing like that, would you? No, of course you wouldn’t. When that police woman came round Friday night it was the first I’d heard. Like anyone else. That’s right. A complete shock it was. A terrible shock.

Gordon Knight‘s voice comes later in the book once he and Frankie get to know each other. He is struck by this young boy who seems to always be alone, and who has taken quite a liking to his dog. Frankie begins to consider the Blind Man his friend; he’s not interested in friends his own age.

The boy was in his room while he, Gordon Knight, was in a drunken stupor. The question now is what is he to do about it? Indeed, there is more than one question… More to the point, once they are advised, what will the parents think? Even as he is formulating the question, he feels the disjunction. It is like a magician’s box. The top, the sides clack open one by one to reveal – nothing. There are no parents. The boy does not have a cabin on this ship. The boy – he knows it now with one hundred percent surety – is all alone.

Kathy Page calls Here I Am! “utterly absorbing”, and I couldn’t agree more. Frankie’s voice is endearing and, despite the tragedy at the beginning of this adventure, his story will warm your heart and make you smile.

 

Futher Reading:

This is the first book I’ve read by Pauline Holdstock, but I intend to read more. Visit her site to check out all her books, three of which are written from a child’s perspective. In an Interview with Biblioasis, Pauline Holdstock explains: “... I believe the quality we revere in children – that ability to experience life unreservedly, to the utmost – is a quality that once belonged to us all, before adulthood eroded it. Children have the power to reawaken that ability and also perhaps to reveal facets of ourselves long-hidden to us.”

Review at the Quill & Quire: “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.”

Thank you to Biblioasis for providing me with an ARC of this book! (All quotations used here are taken from an uncorrected proof.)

 

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8 thoughts on “Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock

  1. Karissa says:

    Ok, I think you’ve convinced me I need to read this. Just looking at the blurbs didn’t grab me but it sounds like there’s a lot more here than I initially thought.

  2. annelogan17 says:

    I can’t wait to read this one! I sympathize with that teacher though, my kid makes up shit all the time so all parents/teachers don’t believe half the stuff that comes out of kids mouths anyway 🙂

  3. buriedinprint says:

    This sounds great. And I really enjoyed The Heart of the Country too. There were different perspectives in that one too, but perhaps not arranged as they are here. That part of it is what most intrigues me. And of course I love the quotations you have selected. Great assortment of prizelist and not-prizelist reading here!

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