Audiobook Review: Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Readers of Jodi Picoult and Liane Moriarty will also like this tenderhearted debut about healing and family, narrated by an unforgettable six-year-old boy who reminds us that sometimes the littlest bodies hold the biggest hearts and the quietest voices speak the loudest.

Squeezed into a coat closet with his classmates and teacher, first grader Zach Taylor can hear gunshots ringing through the halls of his school. A gunman has entered the building, taking nineteen lives and irrevocably changing the very fabric of this close-knit community. While Zach’s mother pursues a quest for justice against the shooter’s parents, holding them responsible for their son’s actions, Zach retreats into his super-secret hideout and loses himself in a world of books and art. Armed with his newfound understanding, and with the optimism and stubbornness only a child could have, Zach sets out on a captivating journey towards healing and forgiveness, determined to help the adults in his life rediscover the universal truths of love and compassion needed to pull them through their darkest hours.

Be careful reading Only Child. There’s a good chance it’ll rip your heart out.

As Only Child opens, six-year-old Zach is crammed into a closet in his classroom, listening to popping sounds from somewhere outside the door his teacher is desperately holding closed. When the police finally move in and escort the children to safety in a nearby church, Zach can see that there are some people lying on the floor in the school hallway, and he sees splashes of red, even though the police officer keeps telling the kids to keep their eyes forward and not look around. When Zach’s mother arrives at the church to get him, we hear the terror in her voice as she asks Zach where his brother is. At that moment, the world begins to fall apart for Zach and his parents.

Zach’s older brother Andy is one of nineteen fatalities in a horrific school shooting, along with many of Andy’s classmates and the school principal. The shooter is the mentally ill adult son of the school’s long-time security guard Charlie — a man who has cared for the children of McKinley Elementary for 30 years.

How do we learn about these events? Through Zach. Only Child is narrated throughout by Zach Taylor, so we see all events unfold from this six-year-old’s perspective. We’re with Zach as he undergoes confusion, discomfort, misunderstanding, and terror. Zach’s first-person narration lets us into his thoughts, as he sorts through his feelings about Andy, who wasn’t always the kindest of brothers. We also can feel Zach’s terror at thoughts of returning to school, his boundless loneliness in his house, and his need for parents who are so wrapped up in their own grief and horror that they can’t always see what’s going on with Zach.

Look, this book is heart-breaking, no two ways about it. At the same time, I found it hard to spend the entire book looking at the world through Zach’s eyes. I had a similar response to Room. It’s a powerful story, but the limitations caused by having a child narrator can be frustrating. We never know more than Zach knows. We can only participate in conversations that Zach’s present for, so even though he does a fair bit of lurking in hallways to hear what his parents are talking about, we only ever get bits and pieces.

I had a hard time too suspending my disbelief in places where Zach recounts what he’s heard on TV or comments made by adults he’s overheard. His inner thoughts are a little precious on occasion, and maybe a bit more sophisticated for his age than is truly believable. My other complaint (sorry, I realize I’m being a curmudgeon): As you might expect in a story told by a six-year-old, I think I heard more than enough about pee, poop, snot, and puke. Oh my, little boys can be gross. (Sorry, truly.)

Still, I was very engaged by the story and the characters throughout. I had the unusual experience while reading this book of trying to analyze why I felt certain ways about characters, and forcing myself to embrace empathy even when I was having a visceral reaction against a particular person. For example, Zach’s mother comes across as pretty awful for much of Only Child, when viewed through the lens of Zach’s fears and unmet emotional needs. She’s unable to see past her own fury and loss to truly see Zach’s suffering, consumed by the need to get revenge on the parents of the shooter, pursuing TV interviews and making  lots of noise about their role and their responsibility for the children’s deaths.

Meanwhile, I typically have little sympathy for unfaithful spouses in novels, but despite the fact that we learn that Zach’s dad was having an affair prior to Andy’s death, he comes across as the supportive, loving, gentle parent who’s present for Zach and who attempts to find a way toward healing. I ended up liking the father much more than the mother, and had to continually remind myself that there’s no wrong way to grieve. She was not being a good mother to Zach following the shooting, but who among us can say how we’d behave in that unimaginable, terrifying type of situation? As much as I wished for better for Zach — like for his parents to be on the same page long enough to get him counseling — I couldn’t hate the mother for being swallowed up by her pain and grief.

Kudos to the talented young narrator of the audiobook, Kivlighan de Montebello, who does a terrific job with Zach’s voice, really giving life to Zach’s emotions. The audiobook is an immersive listening experience, and in places the raw emotions of the characters are almost too painful to hear.

I’m thankful to my book group, as always, for choosing terrific books to read and discuss. I finished Only Child right in time for our discussion, and can’t wait to share impressions and thoughts with my bookish friends. Only Child is a powerful, timely, deeply affecting book, and I strongly recommend it.

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The details:

Title: Only Child
Author: Rhiannon Navin
Narrator: Kivlighan de Montebello
Publisher: Knopf Publishing
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Print length: 304 pages
Audiobook length: 9 hours, 10 mintues
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

A Monster Calls: Review and reflection

Book Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

What can I say about a book like this? Beautiful and awful are two words that come to mind, but neither do justice to the power of A Monster Calls.

A Monster Calls is the story of Conor O’Malley, a 13-year-old so isolated by suffering that he’s become practically invisible to the world around him. Conor’s mother has cancer, and despite her cheery reassurances, the latest round of chemo does not seem to be going well. Conor’s father departed years ago for a new life with a new wife and baby in America, and Conor lives alone with his mother in a small English town, where he attends school in a fog of despair and loneliness.

At night, though, the nightmares start. Until one night, Conor is visited by a monster — a giant creature formed from the yew tree that Conor can see from his bedroom window. The monster seems like a creature from hell, bent on destruction and threatening to eat Conor — but what it wants is a story. The monster tells Conor its conditions: The monster will tell Conor three different stories, and then it will be Conor’s turn to tell the monster a story, but it must be the truth. Conor knows which story the monster wants from him, and it’s the one thing he absolutely does not want to give voice to.

The monster isn’t all that it seems, and as the story-telling proceeds, the monster becomes the voice of reason and honesty for Conor. Through the monster, Conor is forced to confront his own rage and sorrow, the fact that belief in something — anything — matters, and the subjective nature of terms like “good” and “evil”.

The illustrations in A Monster Calls are stark and glorious. Jim Kay’s black and white inks are stunning — scary and bleak, portraying the monster as otherworldly and frightening, yet also as something natural that seems to belong in the mundane world of garden sheds, grandfather clocks, and schoolyards.

I don’t know that I can really articulate my feelings about this book without going off on a personal tangent. I know that I have certain emotional triggers in books, and A Monster Calls hits all of  the most powerful ones for me.

When I was eleven, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After four years of struggle, illness, and suffering, she died at the young age of forty-four. I was fifteen at the time, and although many years have passed and for the most part I don’t actively think about those years any longer, the emotions still lurk below the surface, never far away. Reading A Monster Calls brought my experiences from those years right back to me.

Conor is overwhelmed by rage — a rage that literally destroys whatever is in its path. All-consuming too is his guilt, a guilt that fuels his nightmares and drives him further and further from the people around him. He goes through the motions of a normal kid’s life, but it’s as if he’s an alien in the midst of humans. His experiences and inner life are so separate, so “other”, that it’s no wonder the kids at his school seem to see right through him. He’s scared for his mother, but he’s also scared for himself. He wants to keep her with him, but he wants her to stop suffering. He’s angry, he’s sad, and he just has no idea what to do with all of the emotions that threaten to engulf him at any second.

I get it. The scariness of watching the parent you count on turn into someone who needs protection. The helplessness of seeing a good and kind person suffer — and seeing that person worry more about her child’s well-being than her own. Being on the receiving end of well-intentioned reassurances that cannot possibly come true. It’s awful and it’s painful and it’s a reminder, especially to a child, of just how little in life can be controlled.

So yes, I read A Monster Calls and could barely breathe by the end. Reading Conor’s story was an instant and visceral reminder of my own experiences during the terrible years of my mother’s illness. The book feels real and true. It’s not a soapy melodrama, but an honest look at the messy emotions that are bundled up in loss and grief.

In spare but lovely prose, Patrick Ness captures all of this and more, and the illustrations are stunningly perfect. A Monster Calls is an award winning children’s book, geared for ages 12 and up, but it’s certainly something that adults should seek out as well.

My 10-year-old, having seen me absorbed by this book all week, has asked if I’d read it to him when I finished. I think he’s mostly fascinated by the artwork — understandably so. I hate to turn down a request for a book. As someone who always read “up” (grabbing whatever books my older sister was reading whenever she wasn’t looking), I don’t usually pay too much attention to recommended age ranges for reading materials. And yet, I don’t think my kiddo is really ready for something like this yet. It’s one thing to read about loss and grief in a fantasy setting such as Harry Potter — quite another to read about a boy going through a horrible loss in a real, recognizable world. I do think I’d like him to read A Monster Calls eventually — but perhaps in a few years, when he’s ready to read it on his own and really be prepared to think and reflect about Conor’s experiences.

According to the Author’s Note, the characters and premise of this story were created by the author Siobhan Dowd, who herself died from cancer before she was able to bring the concept to fruition. Patrick Ness was asked to take her initial concepts and turn them into a book, and he has done so in way that feels like both a beautiful achievement on its own and a lovely tribute to Siobhan Dowd. A Monster Calls is quite an accomplishment on so many levels, and all I can say is that it shouldn’t be missed.