By Kate De Goldi
Frankie Parsons worries. A lot. While on the surface he lives a fun (albeit pretty quirky) 12-year-old life, his mind is dominated by a terrifying ‘rodent voice’ that whispers constantly of low batteries in smoke alarms, insufficient emergency supplies, growing rashes on his skin, and any number of other impending health and safety disasters. His mother, ‘Ma’, a career baker who hasn’t left the house for as long as Frankie can remember, knows only too well of the toll that such worry can take on a person. So, she allows Frankie to ask her about whatever is on his mind – ‘The 10pm Question’ – before he goes to sleep each night. As the novel drives towards the inevitable question that Frankie will ask his mum, their late-night chat becomes the beating heart in an unconventional, but undeniably loving, relationship between mother and son.
On the one hand, The 10pm Question is an endearing coming-of-age novel about a young misfit finding his place in the world. Frankie and his best friend Gigs have many funny – and often, puerile – conversations that keep the tone of the book light-hearted. For a third-person narration, Frankie’s voice feels authentic and intimate, brought to life in details such as his encyclopaedic recall of bird species, affinity for languages (real and made-up) and cat called ‘The Fat Controller’. At the same time, though, this book a painfully dark exploration of how anxiety can affect people. Under the surface, Frankie’s worries, and his worries about his worries, drain him: "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." It’s these contrasting worlds within the book, and De Goldi’s sensitive and skilful dance between the two, that make it such a special and moving read.
This book is a poetic reminder of the divide that many individuals feel between the world in their head and the world around them. While Frankie loves Gigs, his best friend’s carefree nature only highlights how different life is for Frankie: "Gigs never seemed to worry. His life was a steady, tidy progress from one activity to another … Frankie dreamed of having such a disposition. If only you could win a temperament like that in Lotto, or get it through mail order, of bid for it on Trade Me."
I’d recommend that both teenagers and adults read this book, preferably at the same time as each other, and preferably followed up with a chat and a cuppa. Those who have experienced anxiety may well relate to some aspects of Frankie’s character, and those who haven’t will get a funny, tender insight into the inner workings of a true worrier.