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Sam North reviews the novel by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

'It was a perfectly ordinary day when Robert disappeared, and the strangest thing about his disappearance was that nobody noticed it, not even his mother.'

Penguin Books Paperback - 4 October, 2001

So begins Robert's story. Robert has a problem with his eyes, not the kind of problem you or I might have he sees things - with his eyes closed!. If he rubs then hard people and strange places appear, sometimes they don't even seem to be e of this planet. At school and at home everyone always accuses him of daydreaming, but well he is, only it is not really a dream. It seems a whole lot more real than Maths or English classes in his German school. It is a lot more interesting than home life or what he sees on TV, but he tells no one about it, who would believe him and think of all the problems it would cause. It is his secret.

Robert is a fourteen year old German kid, bright, but easily bored by normal life. He speaks pretty good English and excellent German and although no scholar, he is blessed with a photographic memory, so he always does well at exams. His is eccentric though and his pockets are always full of things he has 'picked' up, a ribbon, a miniature Porche car, a calculator, some coins, a rubber band, that kind of thing. He is always getting into trouble for it, but he is so absent minded he doesn't ever recall taking them.

On the day he vanishes he is watching some documentary on TV where people seem to be in some terrible strife, running along a snowy street where soldiers are giving them a hard time. Suddenly Robert is there, on this street, in the snow, instantly freezing in his thin blue jacket. Worse, he discovers he is in Russia, 1956, no ID and possession of a cheap free calculator makes him seem to the authorities to be something close to a superspy. After all the calculator hasn't even been invented yet and you'd need the biggest computer in Moscow to even attempt to do what it can do. This is no dream, he's there, hungry,speaks no Russian, befriended for a time and hidden by a kindly girl, but soon enough he is betrayed and charged with spying.

So begins the backwards journey of Robert the German schoolboy. Luckily for him, at key moments, when he is about to locked up forever or even killed, he finds a way out of danger by concentrating very hard on an image or painting, but he goes wherever the painting or picture is set and each time he goes backwards in time. It's like Quantum Leap for kids, only there is no Ziggy to get him back or tell him what year it is, he has to figure that out for himself and survive. Robert has to grow up fast and wish he had paid a little more attention to history lessons. He finds himself in German in the 1930s, on streets where the Fascists clash with Communists. He lives with a family in Australia for time and learns to ride horses, which is just as well when he arrives in the middle ages and the Thirty years war. He has to become a thief, a warlord, to survive and treachery is everywhere. He witnesses a man being hanged , men getting shot or run through with a sword. This is not a gentle tale.

`Where are you Robert? is not just a wonderful story, it is slyly educational much like Sophie's World, and in the telling teaches the reader a great deal about European history. At all times it keeps the reader engaged and enthralled. Robert must not only struggle, but apply himself. Stranded in Amsterdam, he becomes apprenticed to a painter and learns everything the hard way. Each time frame is just a little harder and Robert must raise his game and grow up fast with every challenge.

For people who think modern kids couldn't survive long after the soft life they lead now, this book makes a a plausible case for young courage and determination. Of course it helps if you have managed to pick up at least two languages.

Where were you Robert? doesn't reach the dramatic heights that Northern Lights achieves, but the spirit of adventure is the same and this is one of the best time-travel journeys in print today.

This would make a perfect Christmas or birthday gift for any young person 10-15 who likes adventure and has been resistant to history. It makes a good read for any adult who wants to move on from Harry Potter or Lyra Silvertongue. I hope there are more adventures to come.

A Hackwriters recommended read.

© Sam North November 2001


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