A 49th Shelf Editors’ Pick
MyMum said sometimes refugees don’t eat anything for days and days. Sometimes weeks and months so I am really lucky. I think she exaggerates. But I think she is right about the lucky bit. Or maybe not. Sometimes I forget that MyMum is dead. But that is probably better than remembering.
When Frankie’s mother dies, he tells his teacher, of course. But he can't seem to get anyone at his school in southern England to listen to him. So the six-year-old comes up with a plan: go to France, find a police station, and ask the officers to ring his father. Thus a stowaway’s view of the sea opens Giller-nominated Pauline Holdstock’s eighth novel, narrated in turns by Frankie—who likes cheese, numbers, the sea when it’s pink and “smooth like counting,” and being alone when he feels bad—and a cast of characters that includes his worried Gran, his callous teacher, and his not-so-reliable father. Set in the summer of Annichka the Soviet space dog, Here I Am! is a mesmerizing story about the lucidity of children and the shortsightedness of adults.
About the author
Born in England, Pauline Holdstock came to Canada in 1974. Her first novel, The Blackbird's Song, was a finalist in the WH Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1987. Her 2004 novel Beyond Measure was nominated for the Giller Prize. Her writing has appeared in Exile, Event, Grain, NeWest Review, Malahat Review, Flare and Antigonish Review among others. She lives in Sidney on Vancouver Island.
Excerpt: Here I Am! (by (author) Pauline Holdstock)
I'm starting on Friday because it's the first day. (Thursday doesn't count. It wasn't a whole day.)
When I got up the sea was pink. Yes really. It looked like glass all smooth. Pink glass. I didn't know if you were allowed outside yet so I went in one of the big metal doors. They have a little foot sticking down for souls who are not strong enough to open them by themselves. Luck me! I passed a man on the stairs but he was the only person. I went you know where and there was nobody in there either. I waited for a long time with the door shut sort of like hiding but not. When I could hear other people walking about and talking it was all right to go outside again. It was bright blue then like it is supposed to be and the sun was shining. I wanted to see how far away England was. It had completely disappeared! Yesterday you could still see a lumpy grey line at the back where it was. Today it was only sea. I looked for France at the front but it was not there yet so I went to the rail on the side to do looking at the sky and making the edge go away. It was a good job they had a rail for that. MyDad would say it was something to hang on to.
Three ladies came and stood a little way away to do chatting. They were wearing P.E. shorts and plimsolls even though it was not school and white towels round their necks like boxers (but they weren't!). I sat down on a round iron thing to wait for them to go away. You call it a capstan because MyDad said. While they were talking one of the ladies tapped her friend on the arm and pointed at me. It was very rude. You could tell she didn’t know how to behave because when her friends looked everybody laughed. I didn’t know what to do so I did a sort of smile and looked up at the sky. I pretended I was bird watching. The sea is not really a very good place for that. It felt a bit lonely. Some doorbell music came on the loudspeaker and they all started walking again. One of them called out Come on! You’ll be late.
I didn’t know what she meant because I wasn’t going anywhere (except France) so I put my head down to pretend I was shy. Actually I am shy so that was easy haha.
When they had gone I stood up and carried on looking. The sea was so shiny and smooth I wanted to swim in it but there was nowhere to climb down even if you were brave. I looked. Anyway I can only do twelve strokes. So maybe not swim. Maybe walk. Like Jesus. Holding my arms out sideways. Look. Jesus walking. That would be good I thought if we started sinking. Especially if you didn’t have a life jacket — like me.
—What are you doing? (That was the same boy I saw on Thursday. He's a noying.)
—Can I play?
—You’re a noying.
(See what I mean?)
When he had gone I carried on looking through the gap between the wire and the top rail. If you do that you can't see where the sea stops and the sky starts. If I stood on tiptoe I could make the top rail come down just enough so I couldn’t see the line where they joined up. If you do it right the sea and sky look like all the same thing. The only trouble was if people saw you doing it they asked you questions. The first man who came by did it.
—See any fish?
I shook my head but I felt silly. We were way too high up even downstairs to see a fish. You could see a whale but that wouldn’t count. It's a mammal.
We had a fish in a goldfish bowl at home when I was little. It jumped out and flopped down the back of the sideboard. I waited for it to come out until Blue Peter came on then I gave up. I ate my scrambled egg and put my jarmies on and went to bed. In that order. In the morning I told MyMum—that’s what I call her when she isn’t here—and she got it out with the egg flipper. It had fluff all over it like the stuff at the bottom of your coat pocket. And it wasn’t bendy any more. That was the funny thing. The not funny thing was when I said you could fry it. MyMum laughed and laughed. But I meant it. It wasn't a joke.
(By the way that's what I will have to call her all the time now. All the time. Forever and ever. By the way.)
When the man left I carried on looking but not for fish. I liked making the line disappear. I could have done it forever. And ever. To make it come back you had to breathe out just a little tiny bit of air so you were a bit shorter. Just a bit. Not even a quarter of a ninch probably and then it comes back. When you breathe in it disappears again because the rail comes down. It's not magic. It's because you’re taller when you breathe in so you can't see the join. It looks like all the same thing. You can’t tell if it’s air or water.
I did a nexperiment to see if it was better with my mouth open. It was like the sea and the sky were filling me up both at the same time. I was breathing blue in my mouth. Blue in. Blue out. Blue in. Blue out. Blue in. Blue in. Blue in. Blue in.
The man came back. I could see him out of the side of my eye.
—Still no fish?
Some questions are just stupid. You don’t even have to answer them. Probably. I blew out after he had gone.
I don’t like being with people when I am trying to enjoy something. It's too hard when people are talking to you all the time. And they always ask you things you don't want to talk about.
I went exploring instead. I wanted to see everything before we got to France. They let you go wherever you liked. Nearly. They had a special sign when you couldn’t go. It had a hand like a traffic policeman in a book but red. It's the sign for stop like on the door of the room where I went to bed. It is also the sign for Hallo but that's in other countries. We did countries with Miss Kenney. If I went through a red hand door by accident I decided to just say Hallo. That would surprise them.
Praise for Here I Am!
"A moving tale about the invisibility children suffer when they are not heard and seen as their unique selves...Holdstock inhabits the mind of a bright, funny, and sensitive child through exuberant, playful language that doesn't mask the darkness of his life. Frankie's description of curling up on his dead mother's lap is heart-rending...An unforgettable story about one very special child."
"With Here I Am!, Pauline Holdstock enchants with a spell of delectable storytelling...the novel’s wonderment and delight in the possibilities of life is an effervescent tonic...As adventure alone, Holdstock’s tale can hold its own. Coupling that with clever narration and a singular young hero, though, Holdstock has created a story that’s sure to thrill kids of all ages."
"The writing in Here I Am! is captivating, with Holdstock deftly capturing Frankie’s travels, both literal and internal ... An intriguing mystery ... The novel finds its way with charming intrigue and humour."
—Winnipeg Free Press
“Here I Am! is a great armchair read, delivered by a six-year-old narrator who is always on the move, an acute observer, frequently hilarious, and often very wise. Frankie both warmed and wrenched my heart, and it was a deep pleasure to follow him and the cast of supporting characters on his epic voyage from disaster to happiness and contentment—the very opposite of the story of the Titanic that frightens him so. Fans of Mark Haddon will particularly enjoy Here I Am! — though Pauline Holdstock’s character, is of course, no one but himself, and the dog in Here I Am! is very much alive. Pauline Holdstock has crafted a touching and utterly absorbing story that reminds us of what it is to be a child.”
—Kathy Page, author of Dear Evelyn, 2018 Winner of the Writers’ Trust Rogers Prize
"At the heart of Pauline Holdstock’s spellbinding new novel is the wonderful Francis: a six year old stowaway with opinions about almost everything. I loved being in his company and indeed in the company of all the vivid 'a noying' characters who people this suspenseful, exuberant story. If only Here I Am! didn’t have to end."
—Margot Livesey, author of Mercury
"In Frankie, Holdstock has created an unforgettable young narrator - funny, determined, and by turns wise and innocent. Drawing comparisons to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime author Mark Haddon, Holdstock's storytelling is deeply charming, anchored in the truth and depth of Frankie's experiences, loss, and raw hope."
"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.
—Quill & Quire
"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."
—Consumed by Ink
"Rarely does a book draw me in from page one, but such was the case with Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock ... Frankie’s intelligent observations of life around him are sometimes hilarious and always powerful ... I highly recommend this book. I am sure you will find young Frankie’s story both poignant and heartwarming."
Praise for Pauline Holdstock
“[The Blackbirds’s Song] examines questions of faith, meaning and power; [Holdstock’s] investigation of these issues is profound and beautifully paced, so that despite the intensity of the subject, the momentum of the narrative never falters, the evocation of place and time having an almost cinematic immediacy.”
—Times Literary Supplement
“Powerful, almost elemental storytelling, an achievement not only of craft but of raw emotion. [The Hunter and the Wild Girl] pulses with vitality, building to a stunning, shattering conclusion.”
“Holdstock’s ability to paint strange and compelling characters and march them through wondrous and terrifying events leaves one not too concerned about tracing themes. As her title suggests, mysterious life spills beyond the boundaries of inquiry.”
—Globe and Mail
“A thorough examination of what, exactly, it means to be a person—a question more daunting than any human antagonist, and one Holdstock raises gradually, with great skill and a light touch . . . [A] rich, immersive experience with little left to the imagination. That’s a good thing: hers is the kind of prose you get lost in.”
"Pauline Holdstock's language is so powerful, her writing so wrought with emotion and beauty, that you become fully lost in her world."