I’ve just finished Only Child, a debut by Rhiannon Navin. I have a soft spot for adult novels with child narrators: one of my favourite books of all time is Emma Donoghue’s Room and my own debut, What Milo Saw has a child as its central voice.
Children have a wonderful perspective on the adult world and writing from their point of view, helps writers to navigate dark terrain whilst still keeping some light in the story.
So, I was predisposed to like this book.
Only Child also tackles an issue at the heart of American society – gun laws – which I’m writing about at in my fifth novel for adults, so I thought it would be good to get a sense of how another writer has tackled the subject.
The opening sequence – six year old Zach hides in a stationary closet with his teacher and some other pupils while a gunman wreaks havoc through the school – is moving and suspenseful and sets up the story brilliantly.
After this initial drama we move to the fall-out of the shooting. The boy’s brother has been shot and, as his family comes to terms with their loss, the family and the wider community fractures. Through the eyes of six year old Zach we watch the adult world fall apart: his mother, set on revenge, loses sight of her husband and her other child; her father, unable to deal with his mother and his own grief, walks out. Friends and neighbours become enemies. And it is Zach, through his innocent but powerful belief in kindness and forgiveness, who brings his parents and his community back together. The belief that a child can bring light to a troubled, adult world is something I hold dear as both a writer and a mother, so, of course, I warmed to this narrative trajectory.
There are some other engaging elements to the story. I liked how references to The Magic Treehouse series (which I’ve just bought for my nephew in England), mirror Zach’s own emotional journey. I also loved how Navin uses particular settings, like a den Zach builds in his dead brother’s room as a way of finding solace and escape and coming to terms with his grief. The den also serves as a device to bring his parents back to him and to each other.
Above all, I admire that Navin raises such hard questions – hardest of all, whether a mother can ever forgive someone who has hurt – in this case killed- her child.
I love that fiction is the place where we can explore some of life’s most challenging issues. It’s why I read – and write.