Review published on March 1, 2018.
Six-year-old Zach Taylor’s story starts on the worst day of his life, a day when a lone gunman bursts into his elementary school and kills nineteen people, both staff and students. Zach survives the attack by hiding in a closet with his teacher and classmates, fearfully listening to the “POP POP POP” of gunfire until armed police arrive to rescue them. When Zach is finally reunited with his parents, they learn that their family nightmare is just beginning – Zach’s older brother Andy was killed in the attack.
Only Child is a powerful account of how a heinous crime affects both individuals and communities. After the initial shock of Andy’s death begins to wear off, the associated trauma causes the Taylor family to fracture. Zach’s father withdraws emotionally, while his mother channels her anger and upset into a desire for revenge, with the focus of her rage being the gunman’s parents. As for Zach, he retreats to his super-secret hideout and, unable to fully comprehend what he has been through, occupies himself by reading to the spirit of his brother and drawing.
The story is told from the perspective of Zach and, while his young mind understandably misses or misinterprets some of the nuances that the adult characters contend with, his straightforward first-person account is highly impactful. Only very occasionally do his thoughts seem beyond his years; otherwise, his response to the trauma of the school shooting seems all too tragically realistic. He’s scared, he’s sad, he’s angry; he’s at sea in a swirling mass of emotions that he shouldn’t have to deal with. He is unable to rely on his parents as their grief causes them to focus on everything other than their traumatised surviving son. This is not to say that they’re bad parents, it’s just that Only Child shows very clearly how people can be dismantled by their pain and sense of loss.
Zach also misses his brother dearly, but there’s no getting away from the fact that their relationship was a difficult one. Andy was a hyperactive child with anger issues and, while his medication helped him to control his behaviour when at school, he tended to unleash his anger at his family, with Zach being a regular target. It appears that Zach both loved and feared Andy. The fact that the brothers had such a complicated relationship adds another layer to the emotional impact of Zach’s story and the unspooling of his life after the shooting.
Of course, it’s not just Zach’s life and the lives of his family that are changed by the attack on the school. Rhiannon Navin also explores the impact of the incident on those who were involved but emerged unharmed and without losing loved ones, members of the wider community who are left shocked but wanting to help and, perhaps most interestingly, the parents of the shooter. As Only Child is Zach’s story, these other people are secondary and somewhat removed from his field of observation, but their stories allow Navin to highlight the complexity of the responses that are seen in the aftermath of catastrophic incidents such as school shootings.
Only Child is a moving, occasionally harrowing, story about the many faces of trauma and the ways in which it is possible to respond to grief. Unsurprisingly, it is a frequently upsetting story, but Zach’s interpretation of events beautifully allows for the possibility of hope and forgiveness. He’s a truly charming narrator. Reading Only Child might well tax the emotions, but it’s very much worth it.
Erin Britton 5/5
Only Child by Rhiannon Navin
Mantle 9781509855582 hbk Mar 2018
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