Nothing to See Here (Text Publishing) by US author Kevin Wilson of The Family Fang fame (also a movie with Nicole Kidman) is piercing, funny and original.
Protagonist Lillian has had a deprived childhood but snared a scholarship at a prestigious school, Iron Mountain, where she became best friends with beautiful, privileged Madison. They are both a bit weird, which they try to disguise. When Madison is caught with coke, her father pays for Lillian to be the scapegoat. Lillian is expelled and her life deteriorates.
They communicate through letters during their twenties and, while Lillian works as a cashier, Madison is living her dream of becoming powerful. “I want to be the person who makes big things happen, where people owe me so many favours that they can never pay me back.” She has married a senator and has a son, Timothy, who she dresses in nautical suits.
Out of the blue, Madison offers Lillian a job looking after the stepchildren she has never seen. Their mother has died and Madison and her husband, Jasper, plan to take them in but there is something odd about them and Jasper can’t risk his reputation while he is running for secretary of state. Lillian knows nothing about children but secretly hopes they are mutants.
Ten-year-old twins Bessie and Roland catch on fire when they’re agitated. The set-pieces when Lillian meets and gets to know them are wonderfully strange and exhilarating.
“And as they stared at me, I knew how much of myself I was going to unfairly place in them. They were me, unloved … and I was going to make sure that they got what they needed.” “They had appeared, like magic, but I wasn’t magical. I was messed up. I messed things up”.
Lillian teaches the children, and tries to subdue their flames, through a mixture of yoga, basketball and assignments on Tennessee heroes Dolly Parton and Sergeant York. A memorable scene shows them trying to borrow books from the library, slathered in stunt gel.
Even though Lillian doesn’t like people and messes up she becomes attached to Bessie and Roland. The laconic catchphrase of the title, “nothing to see here”, is part of her armour but chinks of tenderness begin to appear.
With its spiky, strange characters and compelling storyline, Nothing to See Here deftly satirises careless parents and the over-privileged whilst portraying honest, clumsy love with affection. It is great fun and will keep readers pondering.