by Clare Sambrook

“Every parent’s worst nightmare” is a misnomer, especially in the singular sense. As a parent, an individual charged with the care of a minor, it’s a case of damage limitation: the world is filled with nightmares waiting to happen and the guardian’s responsibility is to judge  situations, calculate the risks and act accordingly. Reactions can range from “put that down, it’s dirty” to “take me, but please spare my child”, depending on what life has thrown your way. Whatever the situation, though, the system remains familiar: judge the circumstances and react/over-react in response. But what happens when this choice is removed, when you entrust the responsibility for your child into the hands of others, only to have them let you down? Such is the motif of Clare Sambrook’s opening novel.

      The Pickles have lost a son – no tragic accident, no drawn-out illness, just a muted and hollow disappearance. In the first 40 pages, we’re presented with a school trip returning from Lego Land. Eldest son Harry – the focus of the drama – is torn between love for his younger brother, Dan, and a desire to be seen with his older friends. Sambrook toys with the reader’s anticipations, diverting attention with descriptions of ineffectual teachers coping with the crisis of another boy having been left behind at the theme park. Yet you know, or somehow sense, that this boy is just skilful misdirection and that Dan is the intended abductee. The sensation of worrying about this instantly likeable child feels parental. You’re reading the situations, literally, and assessing the risks, but are also engaged in the darker emotions of anguish, frustration and impotence. This little boy is going to be taken away, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

      The vanishing, when it eventually happens at an unremarkable service station, is haunting by its absence. It’s only later, as Harry steps into his parents’ loving arms, that the pivotal event is realised. From this point everything changes, and although Sambrook retains the sharp thriller pacing of the opening section, the tale becomes a more measured examination of the aftermath of such an unimaginable event. For Harry Pickles, and the reader, the realities of coming of age are made all the more poignant when set against this bleakest of backdrops. The Diary of Adrian Mole this most certainly isn’t. Harry, as the older brother, is wracked with guilt and quickly becomes marginalised at school. Meanwhile, on the home front, the relationship between his mother and father stretches to breaking point – the givens of family life rapidly disintegrating in a barren land of relentless searching and self-recrimination.

      The only constant in Harry’s life is the iconic presence of his fire-fighter uncle, Otis. And it’s via his, and his wife’s, influence that the young boy somehow manages to keep a grip on the unravelling reality around him. But hope and a sense of salvation appear in many other, more subtle forms beyond the remit of a strong and dependable male role model. Dan’s imaginary friend, Biffo, somehow manages to transposes himself onto Harry, despite the latter’s amusing and constant refusal to believe in him. Then there’s also the rock of school. Troubling and difficult, and yet full of peers proving that while childhood bonds can be fickle, they can also be tremendously strong and palliative. The biggest X factor in Harry’s survival and growth, however, is Harry himself. He doesn’t give in, he doesn’t break – even when his inner turmoil almost leads him to stab someone at the Notting Hill Carnival, or when his mother’s distress pushes her to an extreme form of catharsis.

      What Sambrook tactfully achieves, via this series of horribly plausible misadventures, is a sense of empathy which never becomes cloying or leaves the reader questioning the solidity of her central character. At times, descriptions of Harry’s world do seem overly simplistic and carnivalesque. It’s a place filled with caricatures and stereotypes which appear to be on the brink of bursting into closely-choreographed song and dance. But, when you realise that this is just part of a well-captured juvenile perspective, you become a lot more forgiving. At the age of 10, every day is an adventure and you do focus on, and fantasise about, the weird and wonderful aspects of those you meet. Harry, though, isn’t the sole fantasist among the supporting cast. In fact, it would be fair to say that the whole book is engaged with the mechanics and processes of generating fantasy. Dan’s disappearance leaves room for conjecture, for speculation, albeit it predominantly dark, but also acts as the trigger for an extended family drama which leads to either a working through or a creative employment of fantasy. Otis’s dreams of boxing becomes the linchpin for the survival of his brother-in-law’s self-respect. Harry’s mum acts upon her own fantasies and, as a result, finally gets recognition of her cries for help. And as for Harry himself, his whole life slips between the real and the fantastical as he attempts to balance the natural selfishness of prepubescent youth with the untimely burdens of guilt and sorrow. These tensions and conflicting weights could so easily have left the narrative in tatters, if it weren’t for Sambrook’s skill at keeping the tension drum tight. The result is akin to a child’s version of Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under.

      It is by turns tragic, humorous, poignant and enlightening, while remaining centred on the inner dialogues that allow us all to navigate the shittier elements of life. It’s a disturbing and bizarrely heart-warming tale whose central message should ring true with almost all readers: fantasy can cripple, but it can just as easily cure. Just don’t approach it as a whodunit.