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Only Child


Only Child

A word of warning: if you’re the kind of person who had a hard time making it through Emma Donoghue’s ROOM without crying (or breaking down altogether), you’re going to want to leave plenty of time for sobbing breaks when you pick up ONLY CHILD, Rhiannon Navin’s debut novel.

Like ROOM, ONLY CHILD is narrated by a young boy in the midst of horrific circumstances, events that make even less sense to him than they do to the adults in his life. Zach Taylor was an ordinary first grader, a smart boy and a good reader who loved school --- until a gunman strode into his elementary school and killed 19 people, 15 of whom were students. Among the 15 is Zach’s older brother, Andy.

Zach feels guilty that he didn’t think to look for Andy right away in the chaos of that day, and even more guilty afterwards when he engages fleeting satisfaction that Andy is gone and hope that maybe his death will diminish the anger and frustration that have characterized their family life for the past few years. Andy had a diagnosis of ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), and his frequent outbursts disrupted the family’s life and contributed to stress, especially since the boys’ parents differed in their outlook on how best to approach the problem.

"Zach’s story is heartbreaking, to be sure, but it also offers a road map for how to begin --- however gingerly --- to discover the seeds of happiness amid unimaginable sorrow."

But Zach soon discovers that Andy’s death hasn’t solved anything. Instead, it has made his parents more at odds, especially when his mom decides to pursue a public relations campaign, and possible legal action, against the shooter’s parents, arguing that they should have anticipated that their mentally ill son was headed down a violent path and done more to stop him. Meanwhile, Zach has reverted to childish behavior: wetting the bed and chewing on the ear of his favorite stuffed animal, all the while feeling more scared and lonely than he has words to express. When his fear and frustration start expressing themselves as anger, is he bound to become the same kind of angry person Andy was?

Because ONLY CHILD is narrated in Zach’s voice, readers must do a lot of reading between the lines to determine what is happening in the story, especially among the adults, whose interactions Zach often finds confusing or completely incomprehensible. Navin doesn’t idealize Zach; instead, she develops a credible child’s voice, one that is big-hearted and hopeful but also (justifiably) needy and unsure.

Zach’s family situation is unusual and extreme (though sadly not as rare as it should be), but readers, especially the parents of young children, will recognize themselves in its pages, even if they haven’t had to wrestle with the profound tragedy portrayed here. Navin’s novel --- which amusingly and also movingly finds its thematic material in the pages of Magic Tree House books --- contains lessons for all parents about being present, recognizing children and other family members in crisis, and learning to move beyond one’s own pain in order to help others find hope and healing.

Zach’s story is heartbreaking, to be sure, but it also offers a road map for how to begin --- however gingerly --- to discover the seeds of happiness amid unimaginable sorrow.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 16, 2018

Only Child
by Rhiannon Navin

  • Publication Date: February 5, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0525434976
  • ISBN-13: 9780525434979