I don’t know why it’s the late spring of 1995 when Nothing to See Here begins. Perhaps it’s because it’s a time blessedly free of cell phones and texting and the narrative complications they introduce. Maybe it’s because politics had a few more norms such that a main character who is a senator could imagine working their way up to Secretary of State and then, perhaps, to President. Or maybe it doesn’t matter where it begins—just drop the needle and enjoy. (Did they still drop needles in 1995? I don’t think so.)
Kevin Wilson’s novel is a rollicking ride whenever it begins. It trades on the fantastic notion of two 10-year-old twins bursting into flame when they are emotionally roiled. They remain unharmed as they burn everything around them. How often have I seen that trait enacted metaphorically!
The fire children are central characters in this novel of families and the strange forms they can take, but despite the spontaneous combustion, they are the calm center around which greater chaos takes place. Bessie and Roland are hurting, no doubt. As the book opens, their mother has died and her ex-husband, a U.S. Senator from Tennessee, is preparing to take custody of them. The twins have lived an isolated existence and their caretakers have managed them by keeping them in close proximity to a swimming pool into which they can be unceremoniously kicked when they ignite.
The senator, Jasper Roberts, has prepared a guesthouse with a similar pool on his own estate, although all of the management is being handled by his new wife, Madison, a beautiful, athletic daughter of the Tennessee upper-crust. She enlists the help of an old college pal, Lillian, to act as a temporary nanny, and it is through Lillian’s eyes that we begin to see the humanity of the players.
Lillian has none of Madison’s polish or wealth. Despite the fact that her college experience ended with her taking the fall for Madison’s violation of campus rules, Lillian is still attracted to her glossy beauty and understanding of her flaws. Likewise the befuddled senator who has ambitions for higher office. “I watched him, his posture slightly crooked. He looked like he had no idea how anything in his life had fallen out the way that it had. I felt the same way.” (61)
Lillian bonds immediately with the children, moving into the guest house and introducing yoga and breath exercises to help the children harness their volatile condition. She also admires their strange power that rebels against the injustices they face. Looking at Bessie she observes, “For a second, there was that weird flicker in her eyes, that wickedness that I loved, that I wanted to live inside. A wicked child was the most beautiful thing in the world.” (166)
But, of course, they’re not wicked. They’re children in need of love and connection. Just like Lillian. And the book is a chronicle of their growing bonds.
This is a warm book, and not just because of the flames. The characters have heart and humor and no one comes off as hopeless. Wilson has written a funny, profane book that often had me laughing out loud. Even with a premise that sounds ridiculous, he makes you believe in the power of family.