Reviews /

The 10pm Question

Authored by Kate De Goldi
Published by Old Barn Books

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New Zealand author Kate De Goldi’s 2010 novel The 10pm Question has just been reissued by Old Barn Books – excellent news for those of us, like me, who missed out on this first time round and now have the chance to experience this hilarious, poignant and profound coming-of-age story.

Frankie is the youngest member of a large and boisterous family which includes his enterprising older brother Louie, his ‘flinty’ older sister Gordana, his father (known to absolutely everyone as ‘Uncle George), three larger-than-life Aunties, a cat called The Fat Controller – and his mother, who runs a successful baking business but has not left the house for several years. Like his mother, Frankie is a worrier, tormented by a ‘rodent voice’ that is ‘thin and whining and the bearer of unpalatable facts’. Frankie worries about the rash on his chest and the lack of fresh batteries in the smoke alarm; he worries ‘about Chinese industrial pollution, about the ozone hole, about Peak Oil, about the diseases carried by horses and the perils of kayaking’; but most of all (and most secretly of all), he worries that he will turn into his mother and be similarly consumed by his worries.

There are so many delightful things in this novel, and it unfolds at a leisurely pace so we can enjoy them all. There is Frankie’s trombone-playing friend Gigs, with whom he has developed the secret language of Chilun (‘a mixture of pig Latin, inverted syllables, truncated words – and bits of Russian’). Equally important is Sydney, the new girl in Frankie’s class, who has travelled the world with her nomadic mother and who opens Frankie’s eyes to different ways of living. I also very much enjoyed their teacher, Mr A, a former prison officer and psychologist (‘Offenders have nothing on the pre-adolescent,’ he periodically reminds his class.) The book is full of gentle, quirky humour and oozes with warmth and compassion, as well as a deep love of language shared by many of its characters.

Each chapter is set on a different Tuesday, at fortnightly intervals, and ends with a short, italicised bedtime conversation between Frankie and his mother in which Frankie seeks reassurance from his mother about some of his anxieties (hence the novel’s title) – but the ‘rodent voice’ is persistent, and his relationship with Sydney eventually precipitates a breakdown. This forces him to seek help and leads to two of the most tender, moving conversations in any novel I have read.

This is a beautiful, hopeful story whose handling of anxiety feels totally authentic and real. Despite the youth of its protagonist, it feels unusually adult and literary in many respects. Maybe that is because of the way it takes one character’s highly specific experiences to explore concerns that are in fact universal – worrying about the traits we have inherited from our parents, seeing others who seem better able to cope than us, learning that there are some things we cannot change and will just have to live with. It is certainly a book that adults will enjoy and may be better placed to appreciate some of De Goldi’s references (for instance to Russian literature), but Frankie’s story is also one which will powerful resonate with readers across the full secondary age range.