Fiction Review by Rhonda Batchelor

Pauline Holdstock, Here I Am! (Windsor: Biblioasis, 2019). Paperbound, 292 pp., $21.95.

Here I Am!It may seem a certain degree of “suspension of disbelief” might be in order when we learn this is a story purportedly written down by a young child. It is testament to the consummate skill of award-winning author Pauline Holdstock that no such technique on the reader’s part is required. From the very first page, the voice is so engaging, and open, we’re drawn in immediately.

The story’s primary narrator, Francis “Frankie” Walters, is no ordinary six-year-old, but rather a complex, highly intelligent lad who in current times would probably be tagged as somewhere on the autism spectrum. Able to read at two, he also has a word-perfect memory, can solve complex mathematical problems in his head, and enjoys counting as a soothing pastime. He is not a social child and is bullied by other schoolchildren for his “otherness.” His coping mechanisms, when things become too much for him emotionally, include “doing rocking,” “doing screaming,” and uncontrolled laughing. “You know what they call rocking. Unhelpful behaviour. I’ll just stop for a minute
and do counting.” The story begins in Southampton, England, a detail only hinted at until late in the book, and while the year is not specified clues throughout point to the very early 1960s.

Frankie chooses to begin his account with how he came to board a ship at the docks alone and without a ticket (“It was easy.”). But it’s the why of it—and the consequences—that form the backbone of the novel. In a nutshell: while Frankie’s father Len (“MyDad”) is away on one of his many business trips, Frankie’s mother (“MyMum”) has died in an armchair at home. Frankie discovers her when he gets up in the morning, and tries to think what to do as he continues his morning routine in getting ready for school. He decides against an ambulance because she is “already dead,” and can’t call his Gran because she doesn’t have a phone. At school, his teacher, the odious Miss Kenney, will not listen to him; indeed, she barely allows him to speak. After blowing a fuse while making his own dinner, he faces a long, dark
night alone with his dead mum. This is probably one of the most heartwrenching scenes this reader has ever encountered in a novel.

I was glad MyMum was there because I didn’t want to stay in a room by myself in the dark. I expect MyMum was glad I went in.Her hands were cold. Her face was too. I did sleepwalking over to the sofa and got the travelling rug. I had to drag it with one hand so I could do sleepwalking back with the other one. Then I climbed up on MyMum and covered us both up.

When his attempts to notify an adult are thwarted again the next day, Frankie flees his school and heads for the docks. His plan is to board a ship to France (a place his father had once promised to take the family), find a police station, and then “Ring MyDad to come and get me.” The vessel he finds himself on, however, is an ocean liner bound for New York.

Frankie’s tale of his harrowing week on the Atlantic, scrounging food, finding places to sleep, enduring a storm, and encountering some of the other “souls” on board, is interspersed with chapters detailing what’s been going on back home since the discovery of his mum’s body and Frankie’s disappearance. In both third-person and
first-person narratives, we learn how his Gran is coping with the death of her beloved daughter-in-law: “She was more like my own daughter, was Patti, and I never blamed her for the drinking. Probably would have done the same in her shoes.” She’s also impatient with her son, Len, always a disappointment to her, particularly for his frequent absences that he extends unnecessarily in dalliances with a mistress. Despite his faults, we can’t help but feel for Len when he returns home to find the police waiting, his wife dead, and his only child missing. Frankie’s teacher, Miss Kenney, is shocked to learn that her most troublesome student is missing, yet determined to hide any wrongdoing on her part, she suffers sleepless nights and intense guilt, for which Frankie is still somehow to blame: “… I fell asleep—for an hour. Fat lot of good. I didn’t get away from him even then. When the alarm went off I was in the middle of a long argument with him about how long a bus would take to drive all the way round the world, if it could.”

Despite the plot’s grim circumstances, the book abounds with humour, some of it the result of Frankie’s unique interpretations of adult behaviour but more often due to his innocent quirks of spelling. He knows his dad likes a wine called vanblonk, for example, and Saturday AN means “after noon.” Words beginning with vowels are rendered as he hears them; an idiot becomes a nidiot, an ordinary man is a nordinary man, an arrow is a narrow, etc. It’s a charming conceit on Holdstock’s part (and one I find myself copying to amuse myself), but “a neditor” missed a few here and there, so consistency suffers.

While trying not to draw attention to himself, Frankie does manage to make a few friends on the crossing, most significantly Gordon Knight, a blind man, travelling single with his seeing-eye dog Alec. Knight is depressed at the loss of a (male) lover and seems intent on doing himself in, either by drink or by drowning. The bond between these two misfits deepens when Frankie inadvertently saves his friend and when Knight finally understands that the boy is all alone on the ship. Once Frankie is outed to the crew, he worries about what will happen next—how he’ll get home again without a ticket and whether his dad will be in trouble—concerns that underscore his innocence. However resilient and intelligent he may be, the heartbreaking reminders are always there that he is still just a small, grieving, six-yearold with limited life experience. The book’s exquisite cover design by Ingrid Paulson perfectly captures an overarching theme that Holdstock employs. Even an enormous (a nenormous!) ship is but a speck on a vast ocean, but the currents should lead us home and the stars, like Frankie’s mum, look over us.

—Rhonda Batchelor

As in The Malahat Review, 211, summer 2020