A real pleasure to be joining the blog tour today for Only Child by Rhiannon Navin, published by Mantle (Pan Macmillan) on 8th February: my thanks to the publishers and netgalley for my advance reading e-copy. My review today is the last on the tour – do take a look at some of the other blogs that have taken part, with the most wonderful reviews. This is a book that has captured everyone’s imagination… and that was no surprise at all.
We went to school that Tuesday like normal.
Not all of us came home…
Huddled in a cloakroom with his classmates and teacher, six-year-old Zach can hear shots ringing through the corridors of his school. A gunman has entered the building and, in a matter of minutes, will have taken nineteen lives.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the close knit community and its families are devastated. Everyone deals with the tragedy differently. Zach’s father absents himself; his mother pursues a quest for justice – while Zach retreats into his super-secret hideout and loses himself in a world of books and drawing.
Ultimately though, it is Zach who will show the adults in his life the way forward – as, sometimes, only a child can.
The opening chapters of this book are simply stunning, and totally unforgettable – the class of young children and their terrified teacher huddled in a cupboard, hearing the gunshots, not understanding what is happening, then emerging into the horrifying aftermath. Seeing it all through the eyes and through the telling of six-year-old Zach makes a tremendous impact, the whole unimaginable experience captured in the finest of detail. The children’s emergence to the chaos and confusion that follows is wonderfully handled – we see what Zach sees, all interpreted through his words and limited understanding.
What follows is a deeply affecting story of a family coming to terms with its grief and loss – as seen by the child who remains, neglected on the sidelines. Zach’s parents are, to a large extent, unsympathetically drawn – their already strained relationship tested to the limit by their loss and the mother’s determination to find someone to blame. Their problems – as seen through Zach’s eyes, with the assistance of overheard conversations and exchanges understood only by the reader – are realistically drawn, but I did find that my anger at their neglect of the child that needed them made me angry rather than empathetic.
Zach’s voice – throughout the book – felt totally authentic, but I’ll admit that I might have liked some variation, perhaps an adult perspective too, as a counterpoint and relief from Zach’s internalisation. I was totally emotionally engaged right through the book, but the ending didn’t break my heart in the way I think it should have done – I just felt tremendous relief that there was hope for some happiness for everyone involved.
What I’ll remember most about this book – other than those opening scenes – are the details of Zach’s world, his thoughts and feelings. I so loved his confusion that death somehow made his troubled and difficult brother perfect again – when Zach’s memory (and the reality) is so very different. I really enjoyed the little details – the giraffe with the chewed ear, the charm from the teacher’s bracelet, the safety and comfort of his closet retreat, the reading of the stories around the secret of happiness, his capturing of feelings as colours (particularly loneliness, which was heartbreaking), preparing his backpack for his attempt to put things right.
This is a book that totally drains you emotionally, impossible to read without feeling both anger and sadness at the devastation left in the wake of the dreadful event. The collateral damage, to the life of a small child, and the self-obsession of the adults around him, will stay with me for a long time.
About the author
Rhiannon Navin grew up in Germany before a career in advertising took her to America. Now a full-time mother and writer, she lives in New York with her husband, three children and two cats.
Only Child is her first novel and with this story Rhiannon hopes to help bring about change and contribute to the important conversation about US gun control in a meaningful way.