In the great gothic ghost stories, children were often blessed (or cursed) with being able to see things adults could not: spirits and haints, things undead or at least unspoken. In real life, too, children can sometimes see things more clearly than grownups; like dogs, they are great judges of character.
In Kevin Wilson’s magical, revelatory Nothing to See Here, a pair of children are adrift in an untrustworthy world after their mother’s suicide. It isn’t until they meet Lillian, a bit of a lost soul herself, that they find a new caregiver they can trust. Trust, along with reliability and security, are crucial in the lives of 10-year-old twins Bessie and Roland, because when they don’t feel good about things—whether they’re frightened or angry or just confused—the emotions take an alarming physical form: they burst into flame.
As he’s already demonstrated in The Family Fang and Perfect Little World, Wilson is a master of exposition, sketching bizarre situations that act like laboratories for experiments in human relationships. Here, Wilson makes short work of the events that bring Bessie and Roland to Lillian. Lillian, a small-town slacker, receives word from her old school friend Madison that she needs a favor. Born rich, Madison has married even richer, to Jasper, a senator being groomed for higher office. The pair live on a massive estate staffed by all manner of servants; life with their young son, Timothy, is upset when they find they need to take in Roland and Bessie, Jasper’s children from his first marriage. The problem of the twins’ combustibility makes them a public relations nightmare for the career-minded Jasper, and Madison—a former campaign worker, and a very smart cookie—thinks they can control things better if they put the twins, along with Lillian as caretaker, in a separate guest house on the grounds.
The first night Lillian stays at Madison’s she feels “like an orphan who had broken into the mansion.” This continues a pattern set when the two knew each other at boarding school, where Lillian, a scholarship student and Madison, a golden girl, bonded over basketball and a shared, secret sense that they were both odder than others knew. Throughout the book, strangeness is a quality Wilson bestows upon characters he loves, and even though Lillian is secretly proud of her own, the twins seem at first to take things a bit too far. She enters into her new position blithely—“I thought I’d just take them in my arms and place them in our new home like dolls in a dollhouse,” she says—but the real Bessie and Roland unnerve her.
“I had expected fire children to be thin and lanky, the fire burning all the weight off of them, but these kids still had baby fat,” she says. “They looked like kids who hadn’t been taken care of, a little wobbly and weird.” At their initial meeting, Bessie bites Lillian’s hand hard enough to draw blood, and both children catch fire (“It was beautiful, no lie, to watch a person burn”), but they also lay the foundation of a tentative new family. Lillian asks them if they will let her “rock you to bed and kiss you goodnight and sing you lullabies and then wake you up and let you watch cartoons” and they agree to it, warily.
Children who burst into flames seem like a pretty good metaphor for the standard-issue terrors of parenting, and Bessie and Roland’s affliction, while extreme, will feel familiar to anyone who has seen a child on the verge of a horrible tantrum. While Madison and Jasper can barely bring themselves to talk about it, Lillian and the twins discuss their condition at length—how it works, whether they can control it, how to keep it from damaging the people and things around them. Lillian conscripts Carl, the family’s mysterious fixer, to find flameproof clothing and ointments, and the kids spend a lot of time in their favorite place, the pool.
In these strange, stunted children, Lillian sees herself. She becomes fiercely protective. “They would scratch and kick me, and I was going to scratch and kick anyone who tried to touch them,” she says. For a time, it all feels if not easy, then at least simple. “This was how you did it, how you raised children. You built them a house that was impervious to danger and then you gave them every single thing that they could ever want, no matter how impossible. You read to them at night. Why couldn’t people figure this out?” That arrangement, of course, can’t last, and before long the delicate peace she’s established is threatened on all sides, in ways that illuminate not only the wild fear that comes with parenting but also vexed and vexing questions of heredity, privilege, and curses.
Told in Lillian’s voice, the prose hums with humor. It’s there in the description of Jasper, about to see the twins again for the first time in ages, “wearing a linen suit, looking like a preacher about to say the Lord’s Prayer before the start of the Daytona 500.” There’s sympathy, too, mostly Lillian’s for the children, but occasionally also for herself. “There were times when I felt feral, like I hadn’t gotten the proper training right when it mattered, and now I was lost,” she notes, and as the book progresses we can feel her begin to wish for more, to let herself want.
Family is the great proving ground of character, and it’s the setting of the questions at the heart of Wilson’s fiction: what it means to belong, what we owe one another, how to forgive and keep loving, even amid inevitable hurts. In Nothing to See Here, these themes play out in a book as deceptively simple as a fable, as disturbing as a fairy tale.