A family tragedy seen through the eyes of a child.
British author Sambrook pulls off a risky high-wire act, narrating her debut novel from the point-of-view of nine-year-old Harry Pickles, whose younger brother Dan goes missing on a school trip to Legoland. Previously a happy, popular child with a healthily dismissive, physically boisterous attitude toward his sibling, Harry is now transfixed both by his own guilt for not doing a better job of watching out for Dan and by confusion at the disintegration of all he holds dear. At home, his parents argue endlessly, and he overhears an indelible statement by his mother: “Harry’s not enough.” At school, he is an object of gossip, pity and then rejection by his gang of friends. Throughout all this, Sambrook avoids sentimentality, for the most part, keeping the perceptions simple and delicate. She cleverly balances a child’s preoccupations (smells, food, sports, cool things, embarrassment) with Harry’s innocent, tortured attempts to understand unfairness and evil, as well as with his growing anger at his parents, Mo and Dom, for forgetting about their other son, the one who’s still there. Dom, a doctor, internalizes his pain, while Mo, a journalist, starts to lose her grip on reality. The two separate and Mo steals a baby, which she passes off to Harry as her own, and then she attempts suicide. It falls to Harry’s Aunt Joan and Uncle Otis to offer practical life lessons, which swing between the comic (clothes) and the heartbreaking (that the family will get beyond, but never over, the loss of Dan). The story winds down a little more cloyingly, with the family grieving together, Mo recovering with the aid of counseling, and Harry back in the game at school after an unlikely act of heroism and a farewell conversation with Dan’s invisible friend.
Plausible and at times compelling: a debut showing considerable technical accomplishment, although the story is essentially slender and its emotional impact glancing.