The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Children burst into flames in Kevin Wilson’s ‘Nothing to See Here’


Children are weird.

Of course, they’re also curious, sweet, creative and lots of other delightful things, but it’s their uncanniness that makes them so hard to get right in novels. The slightest false element in the portrayal of a child repels like the tangy smell of spoiled mayonnaise.

Kevin Wilson scrapes away all the cloying sentimentality that so often sticks to young characters. The 10-year-old twins at the center of his new novel, “Nothing to See Here,” burst into actual flames whenever they get angry or agitated. Such pyrotechnics sound like something from the macabre world of Stephen King — another author who knows children — but that’s the most wonderful aspect of Wilson’s story: It’s entirely true to life . . . except that now and then, the kids spontaneously combust.

If you’re a parent, you may not think that’s much of a metaphor. We’ve all endured a few meltdowns, usually in some public place set for maximum attention: the flushed cheeks, the spiking fury, the sudden explosion of rage that can be contained but not extinguished until the fuel is spent. Face it: To love a child is to get burned from time to time.

I’ve enjoyed Wilson’s work since 2011, when he published his first novel, a quirky domestic comedy called “The Family Fang,” about the adult children of a pair of avant-garde performance artists. (Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman starred in the 2015 movie adaptation.) Wilson understands the mixture of affection and embarrassment that runs through all loving families. His satire is always marbled with tenderness.

Review: Kevin Wilson’s “The Family Fang”

“Nothing to See Here,” which has been chosen for the “Today” show book club, raises the temperature on themes Wilson has explored before. The result is his most perfect novel. Paradoxically light and melancholy, it hews to the border of fantasy but stays in the land of realism.

The narrator is Lillian, a depressed young woman approaching 30 without romantic or professional prospects. For money, she works two dead-end jobs at grocery stores; for entertainment, she smokes pot in her mother’s attic. What makes this torpid state all the more tragic is that Lillian once almost escaped. In her teens, she briefly attended a fancy girls’ school where she befriended a wealthy student named Madison. That education might have led to a radically better future, but when Madison broke the school rules, Lillian took the fall and returned to her drab home, where she’s been moldering away ever since.

When the novel opens, Lillian receives a mysterious letter from Madison. Since high school, her old friend’s life has only grown more fabulous. Still impossibly beautiful, Madison is now the mother of a small boy, and she’s married to a U.S. senator in Tennessee. The only problem is the senator’s 10-year-old twins, Roland and Bessie, left motherless after the death of his former wife. With all the trips to Washington and the prospect of loftier political power, who has the time to take care of them? Would Lillian mind coming to their vast estate and working as the twins’ nanny?

The setup sounds like a modern-day twist on “The Turn of the Screw,” but Wilson will flip that story on its head. Once Lillian arrives at the mansion but before she sees the children, Madison says, “They have a unique — I don’t know what to call it — kind of affliction. . . . They get really overheated.” By the time Lillian understands what that means, she’s already committed to the job.

The first incident is, literally, incandescent. Lillian meets Roland and Bessie in the pool. The boy runs off; the girl bites her:

“Her shirt started smoking, the fabric singeing along the neckline, but it was soaking wet and couldn’t really catch fire. I realized there were delicate waves of yellow flame moving up and down Bessie’s little arms. And then, like a crack of lightning, she burst fully into flames, her body a kind of firework, the fire white and blue and red all at once. It was beautiful, no lie, to watch a person burn.”

With this bizarre setup, Wilson’s challenge is to keep the novel from, well, flaming out. After all, no matter how hypnotically he describes these pint-size conflagrations, the thrill of seeing the twins enveloped in fire would eventually cool.

His solution to that problem is to keep the story focused on its smoldering emotional issues, particularly the feelings that develop between this reluctant nanny and these two odd children. We’re all pretty ill-equipped to handle the children we get, I suppose, but Lillian’s situation is, admittedly, more severe. Soon, though, she finds she has a natural point of connection with the twins. “They were me, unloved,” she says, “and I was going to make sure that they got what they needed. They would scratch and kick me, and I was going to scratch and kick anyone who tried to touch them.” She may discount her own abilities — she’s surely out of her depth — but she accepts full responsibility for providing these kids with the practical affection their parents feel too important to give.

It’s in such moments that you can sense the real heat radiating off these pages. “Nothing to See Here” offers a brutal critique of American aristocrats and especially the distortion field around them that makes their selfishness look like duty to a higher cause. Wilson, a father of two, directs his most merciless satire at the self-serving maneuvers of wealthy parents who offload their children’s emotional needs to preserve an artificial image of the perfect family.

We don’t hear from the kids directly, but Wilson is clearly writing from a point of deep sympathy. He recently said on NPR that as an adult he had been diagnosed with a form of Tourette syndrome. As a young person, his condition presented few physical symptoms, but it sometimes made him obsessed with disturbing images. With this fantastical novel, he’s managed to capture the poignant paradox of loving troubled children. “You take care of people,” Lillian says, “by not letting them know how badly you wanted your life to be different,” which is so painfully true that I had to put the book down for a moment.

Considering the grim future awaiting these twins, Lillian thinks, “I had to write a better story for them, for me, for everyone.” That’s what Wilson has done. This novel may seem slight and quirky, but don’t be fooled. There’s a lot to see here.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

By Kevin Wilson

Ecco. 272 pp. $26.99

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