Libraries are full of books aiming to enlighten the parents of difficult children, including titles such as “Your Defiant Child” and “The Explosive Child.” But as Lillian, the narrator of the perennially weird and wonderful new Kevin Wilson novel “Nothing to See Here” discovers, there are no parenting books about kids who literally burst into flames.
Twenty-eight-year-old Lillian works at a Tennessee Save-A-Lot and lives in her mother’s attic. One day her old friend Madison makes an improbable request. Madison and Lillian met as boarding school roommates. Lillian was on scholarship and Madison came from old money, but the girls bonded through mutual quirkiness and love of basketball. Still, Lillian ended up blamed and expelled for one of Madison’s transgressions, and the trajectory of her life never recovered.
Gorgeous, charmed Madison Roberts, meanwhile, has graduated from Vanderbilt and married a senator with unusual problem children from his first marriage: When agitated, the twins catch fire, leaving their own bodies unharmed but incinerating everything around them. Senator Roberts’ first wife died, and so the kids will come to live at his estate, and Madison asks Lillian to serve as their governess for the summer.
Lillian agrees — the pay is irresistible. Besides, she wants to get out of her mother’s attic. She never cared for children until she met these twins, Roland and Bessie, even though Bessie attacks her on first sight. “And as they stared at me, I knew how much of myself I was going to unfairly place in them,” Lillian explains. “They would scratch and kick me, and I was going to scratch and kick anyone who tried to touch them.”
Lillian, who has a charming, down-to-earth perspective and a salty vocabulary, comes up with inventive ways to keep the kids cool and calm as Senator Roberts ends up in line for a promotion that makes concealing the kids’ secret even more crucial.
The premise is fantastical, but Wilson’s portrayal of these fire children conveys more emotional truth about life with a difficult or neurodivergent kid than any of those parenting guides. First, there’s the lowering of expectations. “The kids weren’t on fire,” Lillian explains. “That was my new measuring stick for what was good and what was bad.”
A parent might attempt to keep such children out of the way and under wraps, as Lillian literally does, caring for the kids in a remote guesthouse and covering them with flame-retardant gels and fabrics. But eventually, a caretaker’s attitude must become punk: Sure, my kids don’t follow the rules and create havoc. Still, if you’re against them, I’m against you. As Wilson writes, “A wicked child was the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Wilson also skewers the way the wealthy pay their way out of mistakes, keeping themselves insulated from consequences. In this funny and affecting novel, Wilson has introduced one outlandish element that exposes more truth than strict realism could.
Jenny Shank’s novel, “The Ringer,” won the High Plains Book Award. She teaches in the Mile High MFA Program and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, the Washington Post and the Atlantic.
Nothing to See Here
By: Kevin Wilson.
Publisher: Ecco, 254 pages, $26.99.