Review

Fiery critique of wealth and privilege

American novelist Kevin Wilson has a knack for oddball material.
American novelist Kevin Wilson has a knack for oddball material. PHOTO: LEIGH ANN CROUCH

FICTION

NOTHING TO SEE HERE

By Kevin Wilson

Ecco/Hardcover/ 254 pages/ $41.18/Books Kinokuniya at bit.ly/KW-NTSH/3.5 stars

The deafening public tantrums of pre-pubescent children may be the bane of all parents - and everyone around them - but at least kids do not spontaneously catch fire under pressure in the world we live in.

But what if they are able to, by nature of freak genetic inheritance?

Tennessee-based novelist Kevin Wilson has long had a knack for oddball characters and plotlines, as evident by The Family Fang (2011), about a broken family of performance artists, which was adapted into a 2015 comedy-drama starring Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman.

He imbues real life with a tinge of incredibility in his fifth novel, Nothing To See Here, a quirky and fun read about 10-year-old twins Bessie and Roland who catch fire when they are upset or get a panic attack. They are not hurt when they spontaneously combust, though the flames will burn anything and anyone around them.

This superpower is certainly not a good thing for their father Jasper Roberts, a high-flying Tennessee senator bound for a career in the White House. He packs them away with their birth mother, who commits suicide and, in doing so, tries to kill the twins.

The social outcasts, with nowhere to go, are brought back to their father's massive ancestral mansion. He has remarried his public relations guru Madison, with whom he has a three-year-old boy, Timothy.

The twins, however, do not feature in Madison's obsession with preserving a pristine image of the family, however dysfunctional.

 
 

A separate shed is built in their backyard and, in order to keep the kids under the radar, she engages another social outcast - her high-school friend Lillian Breaker - as their "governess".

Lillian, nearing 30 and with no professional prospects, is uncouth - she calls Mary Poppins a b**ch and loves to drop sarcastic F-bombs - and, above all, cannot be trusted to look after a cactus. But she quickly accepts the role.

Wilson's white-hot wit shines in his salt-of-the-earth humour and poker-faced matter-of-factness that contributes to the novel's riotous charm.

At its heart, Nothing To See Here is a compelling underdog story of social outcasts who rise against the odds and find a sense of belonging.

But it is also a stinging critique of the aristocratic tendency to step on people, buy their way out of trouble and look the other way when confronted with inequality.

"If we just disappeared, everyone would be happy," Bessie says.

 
 

Where the novel falls short is with the bizarre sexual tension that fuels Lillian's undying loyalty to Madison, as it does not gel with the broken innocence of the children, whose struggles are far more compelling.

If you like this, read: A Spot Of Bother by Mark Haddon (Vintage, 2007, $17.07, Books Kinokuniya, available at bit.ly/MH_bother). A dark, humane comedy about 57-year-old hypochondriac retiree George, who is convinced a skin lesion on his hip is fatal, and his dysfunctional family.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2020, with the headline 'Fiery critique of wealth and privilege'. Print Edition | Subscribe