The past years have seen a renewed interest in capturing the adolescent perspective. In shows like Netflix’s Stranger Things and films like Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, the earnestness of a child’s voice in a period when everyone in the audience seems to have something to say seems both timely and necessary. Pauline Holdstock’s latest novel Here I Am! (292 pages; Biblioasis) embraces this trend, shining its narrative spotlight on Frankie Walters, an incredibly intelligent six-year-old with Avoidant Personality Disorder. When his mother dies while his father is out of town, Frankie is left alone; the young boy attempts to tell his teachers at school, but he finds they either don’t believe him or are too busy to pay attention. Frankie recalls—thanks to his virtually perfect memory—a long ago conversation he had with his father about his visiting France, and soon devises a plan to stowaway on a cruise ship headed there, where he will “ring” his father to share the bad news.
Set in post-WWII England, with most of the action taking place aboard the cruise ship, Here I Am! admirably re-creates what Frankie’s world looks and sounds like. And all throughout, there’s the conflict between Frankie and the adults he encounters, who either automatically dismiss what he has to say, or turn bitter and irrational when they realize he has more to say than they would like to hear. Frankie’s impressive intelligence—he can multiply four-digit values and quote entire movies after a single viewing—is treated as a novelty, nuisance, or fabrication, particularly by his kindergarten teacher Miss Kenney. She even comes up with an experiment to test Frankie’s intelligence by having him try to memorize a forecast blaring from the radio in the teacher’s lounge, an experiment that backfires when he instead memorizes the conversations being had by the other teachers:
Always get the last word.
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“I [heard] Have you got a cucumber? You always have cucumber. I can never find any this time of year. And You don’t look in the right places. And I don’t know about cucumbers but somebody’s been eating hard-boiled eggs in here again and I wish they wouldn’t. And Who’s got a light? And My lighter’s over by the –– but Miss Kenney wouldn’t let me finish. She said THAT’S ENOUGH…I knew I had done something wrong…Miss Kenney said Go outside. Just go out to play Francis. Go now. Just go.”
Frankie’s confusion at his mistreatment, his observations on the peculiarities of society, and his understanding of trauma are often surprisingly poignant and brilliant if child-like. He gives an unexplored perspective on anxiety and mental health, and the book truly soars when Holdstock allows Frankie’s voice to encompass both limit and genius.
If there’s a flaw to the novel it’s the inclusion of multiple adult narrators. Their voices sometimes feel like they intrude on the narrative of Frankie reuniting with his father. But while they’re never as clever or interesting as Frankie himself, these characters do admittedly provide added context for the boy’s journey. Still, the longer we sit with Frankie rather than with the people telling him “don’t do crying” or “try not to do screaming,” the more engrossing Here I Am! becomes.
Standing out among the pack of stories told from the point of view of children, Here I Am! provides something new and essential to this crowded subgenre. Frankie Walters proves there is precious little that an adult can do that a child can’t: they can stowaway, they can suffer from anxiety, and they can be the messengers of an urgent truth.