Book Review: Nothing To See Here

Lillian and Madison were unlikely roommates and yet inseparable friends at their elite boarding school. But then Lillian had to leave the school unexpectedly in the wake of a scandal and they’ve barely spoken since. Until now, when Lillian gets a letter from Madison pleading for her help.

Madison’s twin stepkids are moving in with her family and she wants Lillian to be their caretaker. However, there’s a catch: the twins spontaneously combust when they get agitated, flames igniting from their skin in a startling but beautiful way. Lillian is convinced Madison is pulling her leg, but it’s the truth.

Thinking of her dead-end life at home, the life that has consistently disappointed her, Lillian figures she has nothing to lose. Over the course of one humid, demanding summer, Lillian and the twins learn to trust each other—and stay cool—while also staying out of the way of Madison’s buttoned-up politician husband. Surprised by her own ingenuity yet unused to the intense feelings of protectiveness she feels for them, Lillian ultimately begins to accept that she needs these strange children as much as they need her—urgently and fiercely. Couldn’t this be the start of the amazing life she’d always hoped for?

With white-hot wit and a big, tender heart, Kevin Wilson has written his best book yet—a most unusual story of parental love.

Magical realism is a literary style fabricating fictional texts into the portrayal and characterization of ordinary people going against extraordinary ones, but the magic is always left unexplained. There are more than a hundred books maybe thousands written on magical realism but the more popular ones include Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, Isabel Allende’s “The House of Spirits”, Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” to name a few.

Now, Kevin Wilson’s novel, “Nothing To See Here” is a wonder of a book that is fun to read but also moving and rewarding. Wilson has done a wonderful job of incorporating fantastical elements into a real-world setting. Wilson’s obsession with spontaneous human combustion made perfect sense why he chose to write a novel about it. But the phenomenon of people spontaneously bursting into flames is no stranger to fiction.  Charles Dickens’ novel, “In Bleak House” attributed SHC to alcoholism as was Nikolai Gogol’s, “Dead Souls”. There are more than a few books (fiction and non-fiction alike) that have fueled theories on the phenomenon’s existence that the probability of it lies in the so-called odd circumstances under which victims burst into flames.

But this novel does not persuade its readers to jump into the wagon associated with the science or the mystery about this phenomenon. The book is rather a narrative that posits: in human nature belonging is a strong and inevitable feeling that the need for it makes us commit wise choices even bad ones. 

Recently turned twenty-eight, Lillian Breaker received a letter from her not-so estranged friend Madison Roberts, asking her to come to her estate in Tennessee with the prospect of an interesting job opportunity. The “job opportunity” as Lillian had come to know was to take care of Madison’s stepkids, Bessie and Roland, who recently lost their mother, their father being the cause of it, and just as one would think nothing more heartbreaking could come close to the circumstances the ten-year-olds have been thrown into, they also just happen to simultaneously burst into flames when their emotions run high. 

The story takes us to how people who have been making a mess of things have consistently waited for some sort of validation to right a wrong. There are several viewpoints that Wilson wanted to expound on but the heart of the novel is how the main protagonist, Lillian, opens herself up to the two kids and made her transition from someone being close to a recluse to someone who takes on the responsibility of parenthood.  

Lillian’s inherent need to protect the twins physically and emotionally was a result of her own need to be loved and accepted. As a child, she had never known her father, and her mother, she assumes, secretly hated her existence.  Her seemingly bad life was for her a matter that need not be dealt with heavily, rather a matter-of-fact just like every other shitty thing in her life that went by. Her acceptance of her failed career decisions made it easier to ignore the consequences but the fact of which made her doubt her own capacity to handle bigger responsibilities.  Wilson’s take on the SHC is symbolic of how kids really are–how they figuratively burst into flames when agitated and the consequences of it elicit varying behaviors and responses from their parents. 

There’s also a lot of references to the dynamics of family relationships in the novel but the readers get to know two sides of parenting: one that lets parents provide something essential for the child and one that challenges the child to provide the parents with a maturity to acknowledge the limits of provision, an outward display of obedience and/or learning the art of accountability.  The contrasting behaviors exhibited by Bessie and Roland’s father, Jasper, as opposed to the way Lillian handles parenting, are what readers should reflect on upon finishing the novel. 

A succinct piece of writing crafted with a humorous and subtle take on fabulism, “Nothing To See Here” is nothing short of an entertaining yet enthralling novel on love, acceptance, and sacrifice. The novel is hilariously funny made obvious by the consistent banter between Lillian and Carl which was a collection of momentous dialogues to behold, but comfortingly heartwarming.  I would assume that every reader would champion a happy conclusion despite the turn of events that every child character in the novel was thrust into. It is without a doubt, a lost opportunity had I not encountered this book. You will surely laugh, sneer at times, and a tear or two may fall surreptitiously, and maybe, just maybe, you’d wonder if you might spontaneously burst into flames.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Author: Kevin Wilson

Genre: Humorous Fiction / Family Life Fiction

Length: 272 pages

Publisher: Ecco (October 29, 2019)

ISBN-10: 0062913468

ISBN-13: 978-0062913463