Correction: * This review originally referred to a dozen school shootings in January, based on data that has come under forceful criticism.
“The thing I later remembered the most about the day the gunman came was my teacher Miss Russell’s breath.”
With several school shootings in the first month of this year — and yet another one on Wednesday — these words could be spoken by a student in Benton, Ky., or Los Angeles or from any of the other school shootings that have occurred in the United States since 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado.*
But this narrator is Zach Taylor, a first-grader hiding in a closet with his teacher and the rest of his class during a shooting in Rhiannon Navin’s breathtaking novel, “Only Child.” “We kept hearing the POP sounds outside. And screaming. POP POP POP. It sounded a lot like the sounds from the Star Wars game I sometimes play on the Xbox.” This juxtaposition of violence and childhood innocence is what separates the story from novels such as Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and Laura Kasischke’s “The Life Before Her Eyes.” Our guide through this tale of violence is 6 years old.
Zach is shuttled out of the school and into a nearby church where anxious parents go to look for their children. His mother finally arrives, but her relief at finding Zach unharmed is quickly replaced by the realization that her older son, Andy, is not there. Soon, we learn that Andy was one of the victims, and it is left to Zach to navigate the enormous landscape of grief in which his family finds itself.
Typically, mothers and fathers deal differently with the loss of their child, and Navin sends Zach’s parents on their separate trajectories. When his mother learns that the shooter was the son of the school’s beloved security guard, Charlie, she focuses her rage on him and his wife, forming an action group with the parents of other victims and giving television interviews. At first, Zach’s father indulges her, while he turns his attention to his surviving son. Each morning he drives Zach to the school where the children have been relocated, and each morning Zach decides he isn’t ready to return.
As his parents’ relationship begins to fray — Zach calls their fights “thunderstorms” — Zach takes refuge in his brother’s closet, in painting pictures of his feelings and in sitting “crisscross applesauce” as he rereads books from Mary Pope Osborne’s “Magic Tree House” series. Zach is left alone to sort out his complicated feelings about his brother, whose bad behavior caused friction at home. At first, Zach is relieved that Andy died and his life of sibling torture has ended. But that relief turns to wistful conversations whispered to Andy, wondering why he’d been so mean, and eventually leading Zach to read from the “Magic Tree House” to his dead brother.
It takes great skill to maintain the voice of such a young child believably for the length of an entire novel. Emma Donoghue did it successfully with 5-year-old Jack in “Room,” as did Jonathan Safran Foer in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” narrated by 9-year-old Oskar. For the most part, Navin manages to make Zach’s voice heartbreakingly believable, as when he tells us: “The gunman came and real life went away, and now it was like we were in a new fake life.”
Any reader who has experienced grief — which is to say, everyone — will recognize that sense of being in a place that has halted even as the world around her continues to, unbelievably, keep moving. Zach describes that dislocated feeling just as a child would, and the strength in his point of view made me forgive the occasional slip, as when he repeats with complete accuracy the complicated shouts of the police in the aftermath of the shooting — “Femoral bleed. Get me a pressure dressing and a tourniquet!”
Old wounds are revealed as Zach’s parents struggle with their loss. Ultimately, it is left to Zach to put what is left of his family back together. I would have liked a bit less “Magic Tree House” and even more attention to the pitfalls and potholes of a grieving family. The plot becomes perhaps too facile as loose ends are tied up and these parents who have lost their son in the most horrible way begin to move forward too quickly. Only a few months after Andy was murdered in his fifth-grade classroom, the Taylors seem like parents much further along in their recovery. One can’t help but think of the parents of the young victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School, who remind us six years later of the toll such violence takes.
But ultimately, “Only Child” triumphs. Zach, at only 6 years old, understands more about the human heart than the broken adults around him. His hope and optimism as he sets out to execute his plan will have every reader cheering him on, and believing in happy endings even in the face of such tragedy.
Ann Hood is the author of 17 books, including “The Book That Matters Most” and the memoir “Comfort: A Journey Through Grief.”
By Rhiannon Navin
Knopf. 288 pp. $25.95