Hide & Seek by Clare Sambrook
As an author, the voice of a young child must be one of the hardest to capture convincingly. And Clare Sambrook’s attempt, though often engaging, is never completely successful. Her narrator, nine (and a bit) year old Harry Pickles veers between sounding authentically childlike (an obsession with toilet habits, his awed admiration for his fireman uncle) to uncomfortably old for his years, noticing details and articulating feeling that it’s hard to imagine a nine-year-old understanding or appreciating.
Harry’s childhood has been suddenly disrupted. After a school field trip to Legoland, his little brother Daniel disappears from a petrol station on the journey home. As it becomes clear that Daniel is not likely to be found, and his parents struggle with the emotional turmoil of loss and guilt, Harry blames himself for not looking after his younger brother. Inevitably, given the tragic situation, Harry’s family life begins to crumble. His parents’ marriage becomes increasingly strained; his father withdraws and his mother’s hold on reality grows more and more fragile. Sambrook picks up on the little things a child might notice under such circumstances, the way his parents stop caring about their appearance or cooking him his favourite meals, and she very sensitively imagines the way parents might relate to their remaining son after such a huge loss.
The way in which she describes these dark events calls to mind Clare Morrall’s Astonishing Splashes of Colour, which explored similar uncomfortable themes using a simple, naïve, rather distant narrative voice. But crucially her protagonist was a middle-aged woman rather than a child. Harry is inevitably disturbed by everything he has been through but Sambrook’s wavering hold on the voice makes it difficult to engage with what he is feeling. There are too many jarring elements that only serve to distract from the unfolding story.
The Pickles live in London’s Holland Park – his mother is a newspaper columnist and his father a doctor – yet the world described by the nine-year-old bares little relation to the privileged existence this suggests. Another awkward factor is the addition to the mix of Biffo, Daniel’s imaginary friend, who begins to speak to Harry after his brother’s disappearance. This is an odd, creepy creation, saddled with a bizarre accent, and the purpose of his occasional interludes is unclear. If it’s to illustrate Harry’s necessary detachment from reality during a time of high emotion, it doesn’t really work.
Hide and Seek has moments of real invention and vibrancy, but more often than not it feels confused and poorly thought out, making you appreciate what an amazing job someone like Mark Haddon was doing in his Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.