Book Review: Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock

Here I Am! – Pauline Holdstock (Biblioasis, 2019)

I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

I didn’t initially plan on reading Pauline Holdstock’s latest novel because, hey, I’ve The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and I felt like I’d heard this story before. Quirky, child narrator, somewhere on the Autism spectrum? How many ways are there to tell this story?

I’m happy to report that Pauline Holdstock does, indeed, offer a new perspective and she does so by creating a likeable, adventurous, and, yes, quirky, young character named Frankie. When Frankie’s mother dies suddenly at home, Frankie doesn’t know what to do. Extraordinarily intelligent, Frankie is still only six-years-old and he knows that calling 999 (he lives in England) is for emergencies. Surely, someone already dead isn’t an emergency? No one at school believes him either. So Frankie decides to catch a boat to France and contact his father, who is away on a business trip, from there. (To be honest, it was never clear to me why Frankie had to go to France to do this rather than, say, a local police station. But I accept that kids get weird ideas in their head and this didn’t bother me too much.)

Frankie manages to sneak aboard a large ship and set off for France. Or so he thinks. He makes it several days without attracting too much attention but eventually, his plans begin to change, or be changed.

The book is set in approximately the 1950s which works on a few levels. Firstly, it makes it much more plausible that Frankie could simply walk aboard a ship without a ticket or any sort of security protocol. Secondly, it explains just how difficult life is for Frankie and his family. This is well before special education programs or really much of an understanding of a kid who is vastly different from his peers. Frankie is smart – a head for numbers, a fantastic memory, and an ability to read well beyond his years. He is also socially awkward and doesn’t quite understand the emotions of others. His coping behaviours including rocking and screaming, both of which he is unable to keep himself from doing most of the time. Frankie’s unique abilities make it easier for him to survive as a stowaway but they also make his life in general much more difficult.

We get a few chapters from the perspectives of others – Frankie’s dad, his grandmother, his teacher who ignored Frankie when he told her his mother was dead, and a passenger on the boat. These round out some of the story’s edges and answer questions a reader might have that Frankie cannot tell us. The book ends with an epilogue from a grown-up Frankie. This is helpful as it gives the reader some closure and we get to see a glimpse of how his life turns out. At the same time, I didn’t really enjoy this glimpse and preferred the character of Frankie as he’s portrayed when a little boy.

It’s Frankie who is really the heart of the story. Not just because he is the narrator but because he offers a unique perspective on everything around him. In many ways, he is a very normal little boy, dealing with an unexpected trauma. He’s charming, even while an adult reader can see how difficult he might be in a classroom.

Frankie’s dad’s perspective hint at marital discord, a fracturing of the relationship between Frankie’s parents. There is not a lot of detail or history but we don’t need it. We see the love his dad feels for him and his desperation when Frankie is missing after the sudden death of his wife. There is also a heavy sense of guilt because Frankie’s dad does find Frankie a difficult child.

All in all, Here I Am! is immensely readable and rather thought-provoking.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock”

    1. I read it when it first came out and enjoyed it then. It did a great job of offering a different voice and perspective and one that hadn’t been focused on much before. Since then, other offers have explored those voices too so I’m not sure if the book would have the same impact now.

  1. I’m a bit ashamed to say it, but I’m really very tired of all the books with autistic characters that have come out in the last few years. The story of this one does sound more original than many of them, although I think it seems to require a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief. Glad you enjoyed it, but I think for once I’ll be able to retreat untempted… 😉

    1. It has become a bit of a trope in recent years, hasn’t it? This one definitely requires some disbelief but I think the time setting and the character work together to lessen that. I’m sure you’ll be able to find something else to read!

    1. I was convinced I had read her work before and spend a considerable time googling to find which book I was remembering. Turns out it was by Rudy Wiebe…

  2. i’m really excited to read this one. I received it for review a few weeks ago, but just haven’t had time for it yet! And i haven’t read curious incident either…

  3. I’m not sure that I agree that a book with an autistic character is a trend or a trope. That maybe reinforces that straight white people star in books. Now that other characters are making their way to the center of the story, it seems like we’re catching up to matching how society really is. However, I also think it’s unfair of writers to make autistic characters more human than human — I’m thinking of Oskar in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I know Oskar wasn’t labeled autistic, but he shared many characteristics with the boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This is why sensitivity readers exist and are needed: not to keep books P.C., but to make them accurate and avoid creating harmful stereotypes.

    1. You’re right, thanks for pointing that out. I feel like there’s been an uptick in books featuring autistic characters in recent years and that’s a good thing! Trope wasn’t the right word but what I meant is books where a character’s primary characteristic is autism. This one does veer toward that but I think it’s kind of balanced out by the fact that Frankie is so young and we do see him later as an adult. Holdstock never uses the word autism either, which makes sense given the time setting.

    2. I’m hoping for more books with autistic characters written by people with autism. Helen Hoang comes to mind. Not everyone loves her books, nor do they need to, but the fact that she’s gotten her voice and someone who represents her truth in a way is really good for readers. Maybe what you’re referring to is a gimmick? There are definitely writers who ask horrible questions like, “What type of diversity is the flavor of the month so it can help my book sales?”

    3. Yes, there can be this sense of writers using autism as a gimmick or a hook. I think Holdstock writes the character here with real sympathy and depth but she’s not autistic herself. I don’t think author’s can’t write characters different from themselves but I do think they have to be extra cautious.

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