“I had the children. They caught on fire. I had to keep them from catching on fire.”
As soon as I read Kevin Wilson’s dedication (“for Ann Patchett”) I had a feeling that I was in for a treat (and I was right).
There was something about Wilson’s surrealism that reminded me a bit of Charlie Kaufman’s films (in Synecdoche, New York a character moves into a house that is permanently on fire). Comparisons to Wes Anderson would also not be amiss (dysfunctional families + parental abandonment + quirky protagonist). And, in its unapologetic eccentricity it reminded me of The Sundial by Shirley Jackson. Yet, Nothing to See Here also struck me as being a wholly original tale.
Equal parts funny and heart-warming , Wilson’s touching novel can be read as an oddly realistic fairy-tale in which children catch fire.
Wilson injects a plausible scenario with a dose of the surreal: in the late spring of 1995 Lillian Breaker, a rather aimless twenty-eight year old, receives a letter from Madison Roberts, her former boarding school roommate. Madison, now married to a senator, has a job opportunity for Lillian: for the course of the summer she is to move into their estate to look after the senator’s ten-year old twins (from his previous marriage). The catch? Having recently lost their mother the twins are going through a bit of rough patch…and when angry or upset they burst into flames.
Like any good fable, Nothing to See Here has plenty layers. The children’s spontaneous combustions can be seen as a metaphor for ‘undesirability’, since due to their propensity to catch fire they are regarded by their father, and by Madison too, as unfit for the public, a source of embarrassment, and as potential dangerous (as their fire may not harm them, but it can burn the people and objects around them). In order to avoid a scandal, one that could put an end to the senator’s promising career, the twins are to stay under Lillian’s constant supervision.
In spite of her complicated feelings towards Madison, Lillian agrees.
The driving force of this novel is its brilliantly matter-of-fact narrator. Lillian is uninhibited, she says what she wants, doesn’t seem to care much about most things (whatever is one of her favourite words), some of her actions make her come across as a bit thick, and she leads a rather aimless existence. She isn’t all that concerned about her future or interested in taking care of herself. Yet, once she becomes responsible for the senator’s twins, she finds herself wanting to do good by them. There was something gratifying about her frankness…I immediately liked her and both understood and sympathised with some of her hang ups (about money, her education, her parents, Madison).
“I don’t know why, but I had just assumed that the kids would one day appear at the estate, maybe stuffed inside a giant wooden crate, packing peanuts pressed against their rickety bodies. I thought I’d just take them in my arms and place them in our new home like dolls in a dollhouse. ”
In spite of their bizarre condition Bessie and Roland are just like any other children: they are funny, easily bored, and perpetually hungry. After experiencing a tragic loss however the twins find themselves struggling to trust others. Realising that their father is ashamed of them only cements their mistrust of adults. Quite naturally then hey experience some difficulties acclimatising to their new circumstances.
“We were a world unto ourselves, even though I knew it was temporary. Eventually we would have to figure something out, a way to integrate the children into the real world. I imagined a time when they sat at that huge dining room table in the mansion, eating eggs Benedict or whatever the fuck while their father read the paper and told them scores from the Braves game the day before.”
I could easily summarise the novel as: Lillian looks after the twins, together they spend time in the pool, they eat a few soggy sandwiches, and meditate. Yet, the uneventfulness of the story is somewhat misleading. We get to know Lillian and the children, and we see the way they slowly grow used to each other. We also read of how American aristocrats will try to pass make their selfish behaviour seem as a sacrifice on their part. In spite of their ‘friendship’ there is a clear divide between Madison and Lillian. Lillian’s acceptance, over her past and future, and of the bond she forms with the twins, never seemed forced or cheesy as the novel makes us aware of how imperfect families are.
Within the very first pages I became fascinated with the story’s peculiar characters and their entertaining conversations. While this novel is definitely brimming with humour, it also offers us many surprisingly tender, if not touching, moments. I soon came to love Lillian, for her witty observations and unfiltered narration, and her charges, who could be both chaotic and charming. The dynamics between the various characters are absorbing, the dialogue is engaging, and the characters are wonderfully dysfunctional.
Wilson is an ingenuous storyteller who makes the supernatural seem plausible, so much so that in spite of the children’s condition, this novel feels deeply rooted in realism. Lillian’s satire is funny but never cutting, while the story, in spite of how outlandish it might sound, remains deeply realistic.
It’s a brilliant novel about the imperfect nature of parenting, of how odd caring for others can be (especially if you are unaccustomed to having friends or a family), that has plenty of humour.
my rating: ★★★★★