I wasn’t at all sure that I’d get on with Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here. While I’d quite enjoyed The Family Fang, the premise of his new novel seemed a little off the wall but Ann Patchett’s hymn of praise swung it for me. Wilson’s novel tells the story of a young woman, still reeling from the betrayal by her best friend which wrecked her life, who nevertheless responds to that friend’s call for help. It’s also about two children who burst into flames when agitated.
Raised by a mother who hardly seems to care for her at all, Lillian is determined to make the most of her chances, studying hard and winning a scholarship to Tennessee’s Iron Mountain Girls Preparatory School. Once there, she’s shunned by all the rich girls apart from her roommate Madison – almost as much a misfit as Lillian but adept at appearing otherwise – with whom she becomes besotted. When Madison is caught in possession of cocaine, Lillian takes the rap, returning home resigned to a life of dead-end jobs and living with her indifferent mother, punctuated by a desultory correspondence with Madison whose life she watches from a far – first marriage to a senator followed swiftly by the birth of a son. A decade or so later, Madison calls her with the offer of a job as a governess to Jasper’s twins from his second marriage after the death of their mother. An odd request, given Lillian’s total lack of experience with children, but this is no ordinary childcare position. Jasper is about to be vetted as a possible secretary of state. He needs the utmost discretion and his children have the strangest of disorders: when agitated they burst into flames, causing havoc around them but no harm to themselves. Such is Lillian’s devotion to Madison and the depth of her misery at home she agrees, but first she must get Bessie and Rowland to trust her.
Given those last few sentences you can see why I might have thought Wilson’s funny, heartrending and wholly original novel might not be for me but I’m delighted Patchett’s puff persuaded me. The story is told through Lillian’s funny, often snarky voice as she tries to find ways to keep Bessie and Roland fire-free, offering them the love and security that, like her, they’ve sorely lacked despite having no clue how to set about it. Wilson takes a multitude of digs at the rich and powerful who outsource their inconvenient child-rearing elsewhere, determined not to let embarrassing eccentricities get in the way of their ambitions. At the same time, he makes clear that the disadvantaged can be equally remiss in raising their children. Everyone, it seems gets in wrong, some more spectacularly than others. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel whose sardonic tone mellows as Lillian and the twins grow to love each other. If the prospect of spontaneously combusting children puts you off, I’d ignore it. You soon get used to the idea.
Text Publishing: London 2020 9781922268334 288 pages Paperback