“But people keep silent for too long and then, next thing, silence is their bad habit. Things fester.”Twelve-year-old Frankie Parsons is having a hard time keeping the “rodent voice” in his head under control. Every day, he has to battle a litany of worries threatening to consume his every thought. He envies his best friend, Gigs, for his ability to just live life instead of endlessly wondering about everything that could go wrong. Frankie’s persistent anxiety is only really taken seriously by his mother: every night at 10pm, Frankie asks her a question that has been consuming him, and she does her best to dispel his worries. Frankie’s entire world rests on a very precarious balance – a balance that even the slightest change might overthrow. When a new girl by the name of Sidney arrives at school, Frankie recognises a kindred spirit and immediately befriends her. But their friendship comes with both rewards and risks. As much as Frankie enjoys spending time with Sidney, he dreads the question he knows she’ll eventually ask.
The 10PM Question is a smart, subtle, touching and funny book that contains one of the most accurate portraits of recurrent anxiety I’ve even encountered. With both wit and compassion, Kate de Goldi lays bare the traps Frankie’s mind sets for itself. The book also does a remarkable job of slowly unveiling the circumstances of Frankie’s life in a way that advances both the plot and the characterisation: as we read on, we become aware of his family dynamics, the reason why his mother hasn’t left the house in years, and the things Frankie fears the most and attempts to keep from even himself.
What interested me the most, though, was de Goldi’s portrayal of Frankie and Sydney’s friendship, particularly when it comes to its examinations of the trappings of anger and entitlement in personal relationships. Sydney’s family dynamics are in their own way as unusual as Frankie’s, and her mother is the kind of woman that perhaps the majority of books would not hesitate to villainise. In The 10PM Question, Frankie gleefully does this himself. He resents her on Sydney’s behalf, but there’s enough room in the narrative for not only his anger and resentment, but also for Sydney’s own resentment of his resentment and for a more nuanced and human portrait of her mother to emerge.
In a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed or imposed upon the narrative in the least, De Goldi contrasts the way Frankie and Sydney see their own families from the inside with the way they perceive each other’s family from the outside. This multiplicity of perspective dispels any hasty or simplistic judgements about family dysfunction from both the characters’ and the readers’ minds. De Goldi excels at a something I’ve been thinking more and more about lately: making the text question itself and challenge its own assumptions in a way that’s visible but never excessively didactic.
The 10PM Question is a story about mental illness, but though it takes its subject matter seriously it’s not ultimately a tragic or a hopeless story. Most of all, it’s a story about acceptance; about doing the best we can under the circumstances. It’s about finding happiness against all odds, not because you’re settling for less but because there’s no reason why life should have to follow a prewritten script. The ending was absolutely perfect: it provides no miracle solutions, but it’s a first step in the right direction – and first steps are very often the most difficult ones to take. Like I mentioned the other day, The 10PM Question is definitely one of my favourite reads of the year so far. Sensitive, perceptive, smart, and often laugh out funny. What else could I ask for?
Gigs never seemed to worry. His life was a steady, tidy progress from one activity to another. He would have a task (breakfast, say; or getting his watch fixed; or doing his trombone practice; or buying an ice cream; or finishing a maths project) and he would just do it. He didn’t think about the nutritional value of the breakfast or the ice cream (Gifs never worried about fat intake). He didn’t stress about his maths ability, or his chances for Boy’s College next year, or is batting average, or whether blowing a sustained forte passage on the trombone might accidentally trigger a brain haemorrhage.They read it too:
There were no detours and distractions, nor interruptions by any of a catalogue of pressing problems. Gigs didn’t worry about his household, his parents, his health, his safety, his future, the probability of earthquakes, terrorism, global warming, or McDonald’s taking over the world. He was a funny guy, and a smart one – and the smartest thing about him, in Frankie’s opinion, was that he never, ever, ever worried.
Frankie raised his eyes to Robert Plant and silently spoke his treacherous thought: I’m tired of it. He looked at Morrie and said the thought aloud, “I’m tired of it.” He was tired, tired, tired, tired, so tired of all the worry, worry about himself, worry about Ma, worry about the world. The instantly he felt shabby and mean, disloyal to Ma, ashamed of himself.
Frankie also worked his way through many books at the City Library, but he did it at a leisurely pace and he mostly chose picture books. He didn’t care what anyone thought about this, but nor did he imagine anyone took the slightest notice. That was the great thing about the library. It was both teeming with people and very private. Everyone was either busy selecting books or returning them or was sprawled in a beanbag, lost in their own reading world.
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