Miss Russell hides six-year-old Zach and his schoolmates in the cupboard when the shooting starts. Fear intensifies Zach’s senses in that tiny space, but even when the police lead them out of the school only a few minutes later and Zach sees the bodies and blood, the full impact of what has just taken place does not sink in.
But it soon will, when Zach understands his brother, Andy, was one of the victims. And he won’t be coming back. The little boy is left increasingly alone to face his bewildering emotions, whilst the tragedy throws his family into freefall. Worse, he loses faith in the one person who should protect him; the person who is now on a revenge mission.
It is easy to read police procedurals, psychological thrillers, cosy mysteries and even the many serial killer novels weighing down the bookshelves. Reading a novel about school shootings takes a step away from fiction and curls around the part of the mind that usually has to suspend disbelief. It is real. It is happening, and it strikes too close to home for any parent. For that reason alone, I expected this book to devastate me. Couple that with the certainty that the family would fall apart in the wake of this trauma, I had a box of tissues at the ready.
Unfortunately, the emotional storm did not happen. While my brain understood and empathised with all the victims, and the choice of first-person narrative from a six-year old boy gave the story an intriguing twist, the execution was lacklustre and Zach simply unbelievable. The word choice for his introspection, of which there is much, is inconsistent and incompatible with a child of that age. It ends up with the author’s voice butting in conspicuously and, as if to compensate, the narrative is repetitive and dilutes the impact.
Worse, Zach demonstrates the emotional maturity of a trained and experienced counsellor, if not a psychiatrist. I cannot believe that a little boy can comprehend, let alone dissect the complex emotions of himself, his brother, his parents and anyone else who happens to cross his path. Without real help from a trained therapist (normally a first-stop, particularly in America), he singlehandedly explores several ‘cures’, including art therapy and studying cognitive behaviour. Sorry, I don’t buy it.
I am unsure of the audience the author is intending this for. The subject matter is too hard-hitting for a younger audience, but the writing is not sufficiently adroit to suspend the disbelief of an older one. It is a shame, and a missed opportunity, because the plot is utterly believable. And the author offers moments of insight into the victims’ reactions to these heinous crimes.
About a quarter of the way through this book, I was hoping there would be a change of point of view, and it is what the story needs to prevent it from flagging. Unfortunately, because this doesn’t happen, the story meanders, weakening the impact. And the characters, whilst reasonably developed, if from a biased perspective, are missing that magical component that makes them leap off the page.
Even though the story comes from a different angle, I cannot help but compare this book unfavourably with We Need to Talk about Kevin. That said, Only Child is a brave effort from a debut author, and I am certain if you can sweep Zach’s voice and precocious understanding under the carpet you will find the book will be an emotional rollercoaster.