Kevin Wilson's Nothing To See Here is a well-paced book about family, friendship, and dysfunction

  • Nothing To See Here, by Kevin Wilson. Text. $29.99.

Lillian bears the sickly condescension of her friend with the same patience she lends the rest of her disappointed life.

For over a decade, she has been living without direction, ostracised from the promising future she may once have had. Now Lillian's friend from more promising days, Madison, has reappeared with an offer: come and babysit the children of her new husband. Keep them out of view, don't let them threaten their father's political ambitions - oh, and be careful, they catch fire when they're upset.

Author Kevin Wilson. Picture: Buck Butler

Author Kevin Wilson. Picture: Buck Butler

"This is weird Madison. You want me to raise your husband's fire children."

Bestselling author Kevin Wilson's new novel, Nothing to See Here, sets the stage for a feel-good family narrative, skirting the divide between the ridiculous and the true to show how close they can be.

Yet further, Wilson dips into a Gatsby-ish tradition; depicting a deep-rooted resentment in the American psyche towards inequality in wealth and opportunity.

Still, at its core, Nothing to See Here is a story about people: family, friendship, and dysfunction. Wilson excels at capturing the complexity and nuance of personhood in his characters, especially when it comes to the psychologies of little persons: children.

Where children are often subject to extremes of idealised nostalgia or, on the other hand, to depiction as little more than chaotic vessels of irrational emotion, Wilson maintains that children are really little persons, with thoughts and feelings, beliefs and rationales. Children act on the same fundamental emotional and intellectual intuitions as adults.

I mean, who doesn't know adults that, properly enabled, wouldn't throw flaming temper tantrums?

What's more, the novel is well-paced and eventful, without being too dense or too light. The commentary of our protagonist Lillian is clear-sighted and riotously funny. In a setting full of hot-air and starry eyes, it shines with the personality and fluency of Wilson's writing. This was a book that I could pick up and really watch its pages disappear.

In a setting full of hot-air and starry eyes, it shines with the personality and fluency of Wilson's writing.

"I had spent my childhood gritting my teeth and smashing everything to bits in pursuit of excellence ... I wasn't destined for greatness, I knew this. But I was figuring out how to steal it from someone stupid enough to relax their grip on it."

However, more curious is the novel's treatment of the sense of indignation which emerges from systemic oppression and elitism. Lillian's life is disappointed and impoverished, in spite of all the promise she'd once had. Early in the novel, Lillian is forced to sacrifice her aspirations and opportunities to protect the immense privilege of her wealthy friend, Madison.

The harsh flavour of this plot-point pervades the rest of the narrative, Lillian's tumultuous ongoing relationship with Madison, and the callous treatment of the children, Bessie and Roland, by their image-obsessed father.

We find ourselves in a near constant, smouldering state of righteous indignation at the persisting injustice of it all, stoked by the condescension and ignorance of the privileged.

'"This is the thing about you sometimes, Lillian," Madison said ... "You act like you're above it all, and you act like the whole world owes you something because you had it rough. ... You never really tried at anything. You had this bad thing happen, you got kicked out of school, and you let that sit there forever like it was the worst thing that had ever happened to anyone in the world." Honestly I couldn't tell if Madison remembered the past at all."

Yet this well of feeling, having been tapped, is not entirely satisfied by the ending to the novel. Instead it feels subsumed by the narrative of family and self-discovery, which leans much closer to a generic happy ending.

There are notes of comeuppance. There is something like anagnorisis. But there is no round satisfaction to the status quo-bucking frustration which courses through the book. At a distance, the book can seem to drop the moral concerns it had gone to the trouble of picking up, or even to pull a reversal and find peace with that status quo it had railed, but in truth it is perhaps more complicated.

Perhaps this is a stab towards realism - just an ending about people, and their more or less ruinous lives, rolling forward. This, by the book's own reckoning, seems to be the case.

This story A thoughtful, pacey page-turner first appeared on The Canberra Times.