The 10pm Question
Kate De Goldi
Longacre Press, $29.99,
“Every family has a secret,” says Alan Bennett, “and the secret is that it’s not like other families.” For Frankie Parsons, the clever, neurotic hero of Kate De Goldi’s latest novel, family life is an unsettling chaos from which he must wrest some order. There’s a “rodent voice” in his head, “thin and whining and the perpetual bearer of unpalatable facts”, and he lies awake worrying about everything from batteries in the smoke alarm to Peruvian earthquakes to the perils of kayaking; only his mother, whom he seeks out every night at 10pm, can serve as the voice of calm reason. But Ma’s a source of worry, too, nine years into what his teenage sister, Gordana, calls “a slow, silent, secret freak-out”: she won’t leave the house.
De Goldi creates a marvellous cast: Gordana and her “force-field of disdain”; older brother Louie, whom bird-expert Frankie sees as a sparrow, “pecking, bobbing, chirping and chatting, on the go and on the make”; an amiable, distracted father known to everyone, including his children, as Uncle George; and a surfeit of fat, affectionate aunts, who descend every second Tuesday to play cards and eat Ma’s delicious cakes. At school, Frankie’s kept sane by routine, mainly thanks to the firm hand of his teacher, and best friend Gigs, with whom he converses in an invented language called Chilun. His friendship with a new girl, dreadlocked Sydney – who has mother-troubles of her own – prods Frankie and his fears to crisis point, a progression in tension that the author handles with subtle skill.
According to its publisher, this is “a novel which defies all age categories”, and that slithery quality was a question that perplexed me throughout. Reading the first chapter, I was in no doubt that this was a young adult novel, because of the book’s tone: “At the third corner they gave a swift pat to Mrs Rowan’s cat, Marmalade, who was always sitting on the letterbox. Marmalade was an elderly bundle of fluff and very inoffensive … .” And it’s a very young YA, since any teen reader – that is, anyone older than 12-year-old Frankie – would be more interested in feisty, impatient Gordana or the amorous adventures of Louie than their angst-ridden little brother insisting Sydney is not his girlfriend and admiring Gigs’s Fimo soldier collection.
At the same time, however, there’s often an adult feel to this close-third-person narrative, from Gordana “thumping down the stairs in her flat-footed, truculent, morning way” to Ma baking “like a practised conjurer, her movements sure and splendid” to the “blowsy and unkempt” garden. These observations are from Frankie’s point of view, but are divorced from his vocabulary, as though he’s strayed into a Joanna Trollope novel, one in which adolescents feel “cross” and speak in pig Latin, and complain about a half-nude father’s “repulsive parts”. It’s a relief when someone gets called an “egg”: at last, contemporary New Zealand is recognisable. This doesn’t mean the language needs to be confined to the colloquial, as a third-person YA series like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials demonstrates, but the tone and pacing should be consistent.
Certainly, many novels offer multi-generational pleasures, from Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole to DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little; and a book about a boy, like Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, can be intended solely for an adult reader. It’s telling, perhaps, that all of these are first-person narratives, allowing the reader to see and realise more than their narrator intends, as in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a recent example of a YA novel that found a large adult audience. Haddon’s narrator, Christopher, has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that severely compromises his ability to interact with other people; his sometimes violent responses result in trouble at his special school, and with the police; and he is betrayed by his estranged parents, exposed to lies, rage and abandonment.
The 10pm Question has a much softer centre: Frankie has obsessive compulsive disorder tendencies and has been dislodged emotionally by his mother’s nervous breakdown and its ongoing ramifications – to the point of inducing a breakdown of his own – but he’s surrounded by a loving family, loyal friends and benign authority figures. At the end of The Curious Incident, Christopher assures us that now “I can do anything”, but the older reader, immersed in his point of view and therefore drawn deep into the terrors and social isolation of his condition, is not so sure, able to imagine the trials that still lie ahead in Christopher’s life.
The end of The 10pm Question is far more serene: there’s therapy, and a new household order, and a pan-sibling business venture, and an aunt-sponsored trip to Australia. It’s affecting, because Frankie is an endearing character, but it’s tidy, too – sweet and upbeat, its narrative resolution communicating empowering lessons about getting help and accepting difference and not being responsible for your parents’ behaviour. The book will delight the brainy, well-read 12-year-old, like Frankie himself, and it’s enjoyable, too, for the parent who’s happy to share various reading obsessions, whether it’s the Harry Potter books or, say, Louis Sachar’s Holes. Positioning this as an adult novel, however, doesn’t make sense, despite the considerable talents of the author, and the considerable charm of the book.
Paula Morris’ most recent book is Forbidden Cities; a YA novel, Ruined, will be published later this year.