This book reminded me a little of Room by Emma Donoghue as our narrator is a six year old child struggling to make sense of a terrifying event.
Zach is in a cupboard in the classroom with his teacher and classmates, through the door he can hear loud sounds and so despite having practised ‘lockdown’ events at school before he knows this isn’t a practice.
“Lockdown meant don’t go outside like for the fire alarm, but stay inside and out of sight.”
I have to admit I struggled, straight away, it never occurred to me, despite the rise of violence in schools, particularly in the US, that children practiced for these events in the same way we did the odd fire drill as children. There is no overt violence witnessed that day, or at least not by Zach who having described the noises from his hiding place, the obvious fear of the other little children and the smells as they waited for the all clear. Sadly there are some fatalities. It soon turns out one of them is Zach’s older brother Andy.
“I could pick whatever I wanted, she said, so I put in the dollar and pressed the button for Cheetos. That’s junk food, and most of the time it’s a no to junk food, but today was a no-rules day, remember?”
This was a hard book to read and not just for senselessness that we all feel when we hear about another school shooting. The hard part was witnessing the grief of this one family through a child’s eyes. The reason why is in part the reason why it was such a good idea to read this from a child’s perspective because children are more honest than adults.
“Yesterday we did all the things we do every Tuesday, because we didn’t know that today a gunman was going to come”
Andy had oppositional defiant disorder which in child’s terms meant he made his mother and father angry and sad a lot of the time, and he was mean to Zach and so at first from his childlike perspective maybe life at home will be easier without Zach?
“And I thought about how we didn’t know then that it was going to be the last normal day, or maybe we would have tried not to have all the same fighting we always have.”
Of course it isn’t like that, and as the grief drives Zach’s mother on to campaign for the shooter’s family to be held responsible for their actions, sadly in her mission to ensure they are punished, she seems to have overlooked Zach’s continuing trauma. Zach’s father returns to work and Zach is left to amuse himself which he does in touching and yet believable ways. Always important when you are reading from a child’s viewpoint. He is an appealing child, and the power in his character, as in the rest of the book, is that it is realistic. People don’t instantly turn into ‘angels’ when tragedy strikes, in fact they often do incomprehensible things, all completely understandable, but it is a brave author who shines the light on how this can play out for both the family involved, and the wider community.
This was a thoughtful book, it dealt far less with the initial crime than I expected and the authors insights and portrayal into ‘life after’ were hard-hitting and to an extent confront all sorts of emotions felt that can’t be easily expressed by adults as a different expectation is laid on those bereaved. I was completely tied into the story and ended the book with tears dripping off the end of my nose – this definitely belongs to that list of books whose characters I won’t forget in a hurry.
I’d like to thank the publishers Pan Mamillan for allowing me to read a copy of Only Child, This unbiased review is a thanks to them and the author for such a well-written, if emotional, story.
First Published UK: 8 Feb 2018
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
No of Pages: 352
Genre: Contemporary Fiction