Hide and Seek
CANONGATE; 284 PAGES; $21
Grief and Harry Pickles / Little boy vanishes, his brother tries to understand
Reviewed by Tess Taylor
Sometimes life deals intense loss. At the beginning of the fateful year depicted in Clare Sambrook's taut first novel, "Hide and Seek," Harry Pickles is "aged nine and a bit," and heading out into what seems to be a promising summer holiday. Life is going swimmingly for young Pickles, who loves his smart-looking journalist mum and handsome surgeon dad, likes living in Notting Hill and hates things as minor as the way his 5-year-old brother, Daniel, plays cards.
There's been a lot lately to make Harry glad. His Aunt Joan has just married the gallant firefighter Otis, a man who had once rescued Harry's little brother from between the railings of a fence. At the wedding, Harry and Dan had been fabulous pageboys, who didn't "fight, fart, or upset the bridesmaids."
With keen detail and a nice pile of British kid-isms, Sambrook settles easily into the lurching landscape of middle childhood: Harry, who narrates the novel, loves races, is enamored of watching women's "bazongers" and is fascinated by joys as simple as finding a condom on the street. Overhearing his parents banter in the bathroom, he says: "Plop! Plop! Big Plop! Only Mo could win an argument and poo all at once." Despite his spurts of potty humor, Harry Pickles has a likable voice. He details the contours of his world in an intimate, confident and confiding tone. Harry is also clever: Noticing the boy next door, he says, "Leaves moved, but there was no sight of Sebastiano, who was a master of camouflage and allergic to houses."
Yet, Harry's worlds of hide and seek are about to change drastically. After the wedding comes a school trip to Legoland, with Mr. Pratt, the "larkiest" teacher on board. The day is a smashing success of loose discipline until, on the ride home, it's discovered that Adrian Mahoney is missing. The bus stops at a gas station to regroup. Adrian Mahoney is found. As the bus rolls into the school parking lot it becomes clear that Daniel is gone.
The rest of Sambrook's novel depicts a childhood under intense stress, chronicling Harry's strange panic and his deepening realization of the loss of Daniel. Harry's voice becomes that of a smart kid in an upended world. Sambrook, who deftly captured the kid landscape in the first place, even more keenly captures the weird way in which the known world upends after trauma. The landscape around Harry morphs: The Picasso print in his kitchen grows sinister corners, the house fills with piles of dishes and laundry, and his mother refuses to celebrate her birthday. As the narrative travels through the strange post-Daniel summer, Sambrook depicts Harry's mixed emotions with compassion and humor and an ear keyed to the varied nuances of loss. As he travels along webs that inevitably bring him back to Daniel, Harry grieves, forgets and grieves again. He feels the immense gulf opened up by his brother's absence.
In a year when there's been another prominent 9-year-old narrator in distress -- Jonathan Safran Foer's character Oskar Schell -- it is hard not to compare voices, scale and technique. In both cases, 9-year-oldness seems to allow the voice narrating the story to be at once more raw and whimsical. In "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," Foer's Oskar narrates his perspective on the public trauma in which his life had a central part -- the mystery of losing his dad in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center --
while Harry's loss is far less public. Harry moves through his privately altered landscape, working through the problem of his own guilt or responsibility, his anger, his loneliness. The book moves from feeling to feeling; no great historical or civic mysteries are solved through his explorations. Foer's book holds a key and a (sort of) answer at the end of its narrator's search. Sambrook's narrator hovers around the galling and insoluble problem. Why won't Daniel come back? Why are there not more helicopters? Why can no one undo what has been done?
Sambrook's got a fine knack for chronicling and dramatizing the intense fluctuations -- the pain, the rage, even the absurdity -- of losing someone with whom one has shared a private world. It's poignant to watch Harry work through his series of tactics, as he throws himself into games, makes and destroys art projects, feels guilty for having fun, tries to make friends with the most popular boy at school, suffers watching his parents suffer and suffers himself.
Through it all, Harry stays deeply likable. He's charming even at his saddest. He can still talk to (and sometimes yell at) Daniel's invisible friend Biffo -- and he does, working through his anger at himself for not keeping an eye out for his brother at the gas station; his anger at larky, irresponsible Mr. Pratt; at the bus driver; and even the world for going on. Which it does, as Harry, now pushing 10, makes more art, eats ice cream cones and struggles to make peace with that world. "Hide and Seek" is a compelling, oddly enjoyable, emotionally raw debut.