“I knew that if she caught on fire, I would pull her close to me. I would let it come.”
Very rarely do I have no criticism to offer a book after I’ve finished reading it. But in the case of Kevin Wilson’s 2019 release Nothing To See Here I was left delightfully satisfied. I was drawn to this book initially for its pop-art style cover and then knew I had to read it when I learnt the bizarre premise.
The novel follows Lillian, a downtrodden 27-year-old woman with not much going for her, as she reunites with her high school best friend, Madison. Madison appears to have it all: money, an enormous estate, a politician husband, and perfect son. But she has a problem, and she wants Lillian to help her solve it. Her husband has baggage—ten-year-old twins from a previous relationship who, when agitated, burst into flames. Their mother is dead, and Madison simply isn’t up for the task of raising them on her own. Over the course of a life-changing summer, Lillian is swept up by the whims of her long-lost friend and becomes the nanny of volatile (and flammable) Bessie and Roland.
As it’s summer in Australia, I devoured Nothing To See Here over the course of my beach holiday. I could have easily read the 272 page book in an afternoon, but I found myself drawing it out, because I didn’t want the wonderfully peculiar story to be over so quickly. Kevin Wilson’s writing style is a breath of fresh air, something easy and digestible but which provokes emotion and thought from the reader. His ability to weave two utterly different tones together is a rare talent. Moments of seriousness were just as easily punctuated by humour, creating a somewhat disarming effect. I was unsure whether to laugh or cry. I absolutely loved it.
Told in first person narration, Lillian’s voice comes through strongly from the opening sentence, and never wavers. Her pragmatic approach to the challenge of caring for these twins, (“either they’d burn down the house or they wouldn’t”) as told through blunt and often colourful language, makes for a fun read. But there were moments of Lillian’s candor that gave me pause, forced me to have a good look at what she was saying about life, love, and the emotional complications of raising children for a living.
I’ve been a nanny for five years now, and novels about childcare never fail to pique my interest. There is something so deeply personal and emotional about a career in childcare that is unlike most jobs people my age have. If you look after children as young as I do (toddlers usually) you have to accept that for however short your time with the family is, you are helping to raise a child. You grow emotionally attached very quickly, and it can be incredibly hard to move on. There are kids I worked for years ago that I still think about, and wonder what they are doing.
Although none of the kids I’ve worked with have ever burst into flames (thankfully), I felt a kinship to Lillian. I understood her struggle to take on a maternal role in Bessie and Roland’s life. Wilson captured the experience of working in someone else’s home, growing attached to the kids and the highs and lows that come with a nanny job. If a child doesn’t like you, you will know, and I related to Lillian being on the receiving end of a child’s brutal honesty, the painfully awkward interactions with children who see you as a total stranger. Equally, I felt Lillian’s pride as my own when the kids grew to accept her first as an ally, and then as someone they loved.
Lillian’s character arc is perhaps the strongest element to the novel. She takes on the job as Governess of the children because, putting it plainly, “my life sucked.” Motivated entirely by boredom, and an interest to make easy money, Lillian believes she is destined for something better than the lot in life she’s received. She convinces herself,
“If I tamed these children, if I cured their weird fire sickness? Wasn’t that the start of an amazing life?”
Far from honourable intentions, you would be forgiven for not liking Lillian at first. To me, however, it’s her obvious flaws that make her such a dynamic character, and which allow room to grow. It’s hard not to sympathise with her and by the end, root for her.
She soon learns that being responsible for two damaged kids, with serious anger-management issues, is more than a summer job. She’s the only thing stopping Bessie and Roland from feeling completely alone in the world, and if she’s being honest with herself, they’re the only thing that gives her life proper meaning. In a powerful line Lillian declares of the kids: “they were wild, like me. They deserved better, like me. I wouldn’t fuck up. I resolved myself to this future. I would not fuck up. No fucking way.” This reminds audiences that while fire children may be outside the realm of reality, two young kids wanting love is not.
This is truly a testament to Wilson as a writer in his ability to touch on the delicacy of class, oppression, and social exclusion in a completely original and new light. It forced me to think deeply about the lives of these characters as if they were people I knew in real life. I became invested not only in Lillian’s life and the wellbeing of Bessie and Roland, but of those surrounding her—Madison, her son, and even the cook, Mary.
I noted several quotes throughout the novel, mostly of Lillian’s inner monologue, that really stood out to me. Among those stand outs were:
“You took care of people by not letting them know how badly you wanted your life to be different.”
This line represents the nuances of the novel and of Wilson’s ability to make melancholia beautiful. It’s a line that shows just how much Bessie and Roland changed Lillian on a fundamental level. She becomes not just a wild thing, but in a way, a mother. And although not a mother myself, it felt like a universal truth was being spoken here. Parents often sacrifice so much for their children, and when this is done well, children remain in blissful ignorance. They believe, as I did growing up, that their parents/guardians were always happy. I’m sure there were days I was frustrating, hard to look after, even a pain in the arse. And children limit us in ways we can’t begin to imagine. But Lillian’s duty was to never let that show. That’s how you care for someone.
Kevin Wilson weaves a story of a love, found family, and class exclusion. Whether you’re a parent yourself, or someone who has nothing in common with the characters, I think this is a story that anybody could enjoy. From its strange whimsy to its raw observations about life, Nothing To See Here is an outstanding novel of perseverance that will have you thinking about it for days after.
Nothing To See Here
By Kevin Wilson
272 pages. 2019.
Buy it here.
Buy it here. (AUS)