A little over a year ago, author Kevin Wilson came out with a collection of short, somewhat fantastical stories titled Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, which I reviewed in a 2018 issue of the Rail. This year, Wilson returns with another fantastical tale, a novel titled Nothing to See Here, about two strange children who spontaneously combust when they’re upset. Bessie and Roland are the twin children of Jasper Roberts, a wealthy politician who has started a new life and new family. The story, though, is told through Lillian, a woman who briefly attended a fancy boarding school on scholarship with Jasper’s wife Madison, but then had to leave due to a scandal of Madison’s making. Lillian and Madison keep in touch over the years, and, one day, Lillian receives an urgent invitation from Madison that turns into a plea for help. Madison wants Lillian to act as governess for her two stepchildren after the death of their mother. The only catch is, the children catch fire.
Nothing to See Here
Wilson’s strange tale kept me turning page after page, enthralled by the relationships, the characters, and the magical elements of the story. Essentially, this is a story about family and motherhood, with the odd twist of fire children. Upon introduction to the children, they appear rabid and feral, attacking and biting Lillian as they drag her into a swimming pool, turning themselves into fiery flames. But Wilson very quickly had me sympathizing with Bessie and Roland, two abandoned, socially inept children with homeschool haircuts. Lillian, too, begins to feel almost maternally towards the twins. She begins as a character without attachments. She’s been dealt an unlucky hand in life and is merely living day to day, with no real hope or plans for her future. She agrees to the arrangement with Madison despite her own inexperience with children or caretaking, or fire, and as she learns more about their lives and Jasper’s eventual plans for them, she wants nothing more than to protect them.
Wilson’s writing is smart and funny, and he’s able to seamlessly jump from whimsy to sadness to humor with such ease. The novel leans into its own absurdity quite well, the situational comedy of it all coming through in the narration. Lillian tries to solve the problem of the burning children in a variety of ways, teaching them yoga to control their anger and covering them in a goopy gel meant for stunt actors coming into contact with fire. These moments are largely comical, as the kids take a trip to the library covered head to toe in shimmery gel, only for Lillian to realize that they don’t have a library card, and have no way of getting one without proof of address.
Lillian’s voice is straightforward and oftentimes darkly funny. At one point, she takes a dry, objective look at the kids and says, “they were not attractive children. They looked ratty. I hadn’t even tried to fix their haircuts. I feared that fixing them would only make the kids more plain. They had round little bellies, way past the point when you’d expect a kid to lose it.” The dry tone, followed quickly by sentiment—or Lillian’s version of sentiment: “And yet. And yet … I did not hate them”—is strangely heartwarming. Through Lillian’s eyes, Wilson makes us care deeply for these two kids and the odd little family the three of them have formed.
As Lillian learns how to be a mother, Wilson shows us that families can form in a variety of ways. While the ending of the novel comes as no surprise, the story itself is moving and compelling, and I found myself wanting nothing but the best for Lillian and her fire children. Wilson keeps readers engaged and captivated, and he builds a world that we accept and believe without question. Nothing to See Here is a highly entertaining and witty novel with plenty of humor and heart.