Title: Only Child
Author: Rhiannon Navin
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
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.
This novel provoked such a mix of emotions as I was reading it. The story itself is unique in its narrative – about a school shooting but seen through the eyes of a first grade child (year 2 for us here in the UK) – and the effects afterwards on not just him but his family and the wider community.
This is such a topical subject, with a worrying number of school shootings having already happened and another awful shooting very recently in Florida. It really makes you think about what a devastating effect this has on everyone. The novel starts so shockingly, with the shooting unfolding at the school and Zach hiding in a closet with his classmates and teacher. That alone gave me the chills and had me riveted. Even though Zach perhaps doesn’t quite understand the seriousness of the situation, I could feel the tension through the pages, ensuring I was hooked from the very beginning – and continued to be so long after the shooting ended.
The characters in Only Child are great because no one is perfect. Even those killed during the shooting are not perfect, though – as Zach points out – people tend to remember those killed in a much more positive way than when they were alive – for example, Zach’s brother, Andy, who suffered from ODD (‘oppositional defiant disorder’, which I wasn’t aware of before googling it as I read this novel) and was, as we see through Zach’s memories, not particularly nice to Zach (or his parents) a lot of the time. Zach’s mother and father, suffering from such grief, are also nowhere near perfect – in their behaviour before, during, and after the shooting – but no one is perfect, and who’s to say how you should behave when something like this happens to you? There is no proper way to behave, is there? Only Child really highlights this, as well as how hard things can be for the child who’s still alive. It’s devastating to read Zach’s naive take on things – of course, as adults reading, we can work out what’s really going on but his innocence shines through the pages and makes me really feel for him. This is a powerful book for making you think and empathise with what other people are going through – I feel for their community, and indeed the parents of the shooter too, so much.
I cried countless times and thought, yet again, how lucky I am to live in a country that doesn’t have the same level of gun culture as America – but how incredibly sad and devastating it is that people over there – both the kids at school and their friends and families – ever have to deal with this kind of thing. Poignant, moving and powerful, this is a must-read and an amazing debut from Rhiannon Navin. I look forward to seeing what’s next from her.
Many thanks to Pan Macmillan and Netgalley for providing a copy of this novel on which I chose to write an honest and unbiased review.