Readers learn several things very quickly in the first devastating pages of Rhiannon Navin’s debut. We learn that the narrator, Zach Taylor, is a 6-year-old boy. He is hunkered down in a closet with his teacher and classmates while a maniac shoots up their school. When the crisis is over, we learn something about his family: His mother, Melissa, does the family’s emotional work because his father, Jim, is constricted in ways that seem a throwback to Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit. Jim’s mother has taught Zach how to hold back threatening tears by pinching the bridge of his nose, much as we suspect she taught Jim. Then we learn that Zach’s older brother, Andy, has been murdered.
That’s the worst of it, but that’s not all of it. Nine-year-old Andy was not an easy kid to like, to say the least. The burden of dealing with their eldest son strained Jim and Melissa’s marriage, and it’s likely there were times that his family wanted him to get lost, at least for a few hours. How does a family pull itself together after the slaughter of someone they were a little ambivalent about? There are times when you fear that they won’t; it’s not a spoiler to say that Melissa nearly loses her mind from grief. How do the Taylor men, raised to be stoic, deal with any of this?
The title, Only Child, is clever in several ways. Andy’s death leaves Zach as his parents’ only child. He is also only a child and, like so many kids his age, inadvertently wise. His wisdom comes from innocence: The reader understands things that he can’t possibly fathom at his age. We know why his neighbor, a woman whose child also died in the massacre, stands in the rain wearing only her T-shirt. We can guess why Andy has a closed coffin during the wake. Zach, this bright kid who shares a name with a dull president, knows only that things are bad and he wants them to get better. He also knows what he has to do to make that happen.
Though Zach’s character could have benefited from being a little older, Navin succeeds in the tricky job of narrating her tale through the eyes of a young child. She views her characters with compassion, even as they are not on their best behavior. How could they be? Only Child shows the painful aftermath of a calamity that’s becoming all too common.
Fiction / Debut Fiction / Coming of Age