The true story of a lost boy that blurred fiction with reality

Sophie Radice was shocked to find a lost little boy on Hampstead Heath. She responded by writing a novel

When Sophie Radice found a small barefoot boy on Hampstead Heath, she panicked that he was lost and took him home. It turned out that his parents, who were walking a little further ahead, knew that he was just behind and then wondered where he had gone. The situation was soon solved. Both Radice and the parents lived nearby – so the boy was safely returned.

Even though that story came to a swift and quite pleasant end, the discovery of the boy helped Radice, a journalist and then unpublished author, to begin a new one. She began to write The Henry Experiment, which – with the real event as the starting point – questions the responsibility we have as a community to children.

“The situation was fine but, at first, it didn’t seem to be fine. It got me thinking about how much you should let your children do and was I being overprotective in my reaction? Some people thought I was. I basically responded by writing a novel about it.”

“I’m sure we’ve all been in that sort of situation, where you know a child is being neglected in some way and you don’t know what to do about it. People are amazingly reluctant to get involved. If there’s a middle-class kid in that situation, I think people are even more reluctant.”

Radice, 47, who was born in “proper posh Hampstead” and now lives in Gospel Oak, spent a year writing the story, which sees an academic child-psychologist father, who believes that children should learn life’s lessons early, and a mother, whose children have just left home come up against each other, in a battle of wits over parenting responsibility.

Radice has two grown-up children of her own and admits that one of the characters in the story includes a lot of herself and her own feelings towards her children who were flying the nest. “The main character is quite a lot based on me. I put my children first and, in order to do that, I’ve sort of not taken myself seriously enough. I’ve had to work, but not taken myself seriously in my career because part of me was resentful of the fact that work took me away from my kids. I go through these emotions a bit in the book. I think that when your children leave home, if they have been your life, you have to find another life almost – and that’s what the main character is doing. I wouldn’t do it in the same way she does, though.”

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The Henry Experiment is the first book which Radice has had published, with other, earlier efforts left by the wayside. “I did write a book before this but it was really hard to get it published. This time, I was more determined. With the other one, I was not as confident. This time I really persevered and that’s what I recommend everyone do. There are so many little publishers now.”

The book, which is out in February, has already received high praise with Maggie O’Farrell, author of After You’d Gone, calling it “a smart, compelling literary thriller that asks big questions about our current attitudes to family and childhood”.

Radice never thought she would find her inspiration on the Heath, somewhere she has spent her own childhood and her children’s and still walks around today. “Once the idea came to me, I couldn’t help but set it on the Heath. It is a place that is both wild and not. It is an interesting place.”

The Henry Experiment, published by Linen Press, is out in February priced �11.99.