Amid the frenzy surrounding the many dystopian, fantasy and alternate reality novels swamping the young adult market at the moment it would be all too easy to overlook The 10pm Question, an understated but very nearly perfect contemporary novel from the New Zealand writer Kate de Goldi.
The hero of the novel, in every sense of the word, is 12-year-old Frankie Parsons, the youngest member of a warm, funny, unconventional family. Frankie struggles with anxiety, the cause of which, we gradually come to understand, is his mother, who has issues of her own to contend with.
Every night at exactly 10pm, Frankie goes into his mother’s room, interrupting the rereading one of her favourite Russian novels to ask her a question about his latest health anxiety. And every night she reassures him that it’s unlikely that he has caught Hepatitis from Seamus Kearney’s brother, or that he has an undiagnosed hole in his heart like Solly Napier’s cousin. He goes to bed reassured, but he is never entirely free of the ‘rodent voice… thin and whining and the perpetual bearer of unpalatable facts’.
Still, with the uncritical support of his best friend Gigs, Frankie manages to keep his feelings pretty well under control, until a girl called Sydney breezes into his life on what he rapidly and unhappily realises is a wind of change. Sydney, it turns out, is very good at asking questions and Frankie soon finds himself ducking and diving to prevent her asking the questions that he just isn’t ready to face the answers to.
What sets this book on a plane above most ‘issue novels’ is that the characters are so surely drawn, so individual and believable that it is they, rather than the focus on mental health, that drives the story. Frankie’s dad, his brother and his sister and best of all his three card-playing great-aunts are the sort of fully-rounded people who could step right out of the story and into your own family and even his cat, The Fat Controller, is more lifelike than the humans in most novels.
One the best things about The 10pm Question is the way it ends. Mostly, books like this are spoiled by an inept resolution, caused either by the writer’s compulsion to tidy all the loose threads, or by their inability to draw the strands of the narrative together in a convincing way, but the ending of this book is as perfect, understated and elegant as the rest of it.
The 10pm Question could be enjoyed by anyone from 10 to adult and would be a wonderful novel to share with a Y7 or Y8 class. In fact, next time I get to choose a set of KS3 class novels, it is going to be the only name on the shortlist.
The 10pm Question, Kate de Goldi, Templar Publishing, £6.99