Hide and Seek, by Clare Sambrook

Is he a real small boy or is this a wind-up?
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The Independent Culture

Harry Pickles is not your average hero. He is feckless, he is inclined to violence and he farts. While it may be unusual for a book to stand or fall on its fart gags, flatulence is pivotal in determining the success of Hide and Seek. Harry is a nine-year-old boy; the author is a grown-up woman. The credibility of his voice is one of the most essential elements of the novel, and one of the easiest to get wrong.

Harry Pickles is not your average hero. He is feckless, he is inclined to violence and he farts. While it may be unusual for a book to stand or fall on its fart gags, flatulence is pivotal in determining the success of Hide and Seek. Harry is a nine-year-old boy; the author is a grown-up woman. The credibility of his voice is one of the most essential elements of the novel, and one of the easiest to get wrong.

Harry starts well. The thrill and chaos and casual brutality of childhood are gorgeously accurate. "Me, Cal and the other big boys had been playing Lord of the Flies til Milly's dad had his sense of humour failure and confiscated the shell," he explains. "Milly was a pig and we were hunting with spears. She was two. She didn't mind. She'd helped us gather firewood for the spit."

Until the day of the school trip, Harry is a normal boy. He is a fast runner, is the boss of his gang, has the best-looking parents in the school and a five-year-old brother, Daniel, to torment. But when Daniel goes missing on the way home from Legoland, everything changes. "Two things happened at once," he says. "Mum's face went thin. And I knew what adults meant when they said that hearts sank."

The aftermath of Daniel's disappearance is frantic and confusing - and completely over Harry's head. He dreams up vivid explanations based on half-overheard whispers and the conversations adults have "without ever opening their mouths". He pretends to understand when the cynical and slightly weird new boy in school tells him about creepy men and the things they do to little boys. He is selfish and cross. But occasionally, Harry's voice just slips away.

It is not just the disproportionate obsession with farting, which reads like the kind of preoccupation a grown woman might expect a young boy to have. Harry's voice is almost perfect, and almost constant, but almost is not quite enough to sustain the willing suspension of disbelief. Adult expressions like "What's that all about?" and "It was just too depressing" occasionally jar. But apart from the occasional interruption, Harry is beautifully real. His childish, man-of-the-world butchness is touching - like when his best friend tells him, by way of an apology: "And. Well. Harry. We were younger then." Harry replies, gruffly: "We're 10 now." Moreover, Sambrook shows it is possible to write about complex emotional conditions in a child's voice.

Without Daniel, Hide and Seek is ultimately inconclusive. But this is convincingly just like life. On the whole, the novel is touching, sad and very funny. Unfortunately, also just like life, there is just a little too much farting.

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