Book Review: Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

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Title: Only Child

Author: Rhiannon Navin

Number of Pages: 288

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Rating: A-

Recommended?: Yes


I had heard a lot of good things about this book, and I wasn’t disappointed. Even though it’s longish (at least it’s longer than most of the books I’ve been reading lately) I sped right through the story. The thing that makes this book special is the main character’s voice. I know it’s really, really hard for authors writing child narrators but I thought Rhiannon Navin pulled this off beautifully. The feat is even more impressive considering the main character is only six, and navigating a messy sea of emotions following an event no kid should ever have to go through.


The story grabs you right away, with Zach (the main character) being hidden in a closet in the classroom in his elementary school when a gunman comes in and starts randomly shooting teachers and children. Due to the fast-thinking action of his teacher, Zach survives, but his slightly older brother Andy is killed in the massacre. Now Zach’s parents have to cope with the memory of one dead son and the presence of a son that they are ill-equipped to be emotionally available for. Zach’s dad handles him better than his wife, while Zach’s mom understandably goes off the deep end and begins a single-minded campaign against the parents of the young man who killed Andy.


One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the relationship between Zach and Andy. It turns out Andy was kind of an asshole to Zach and the whole family had difficulty dealing with his out-of-control temper, so his death unexpectedly leaves Zach feeling a certain guilty measure of relief. Zach is frightened by his ambivalent reaction and struggles to process what happened to Andy and their complicated and less-than-ideal co-existence. Zach obviously has PTSD and starts wetting his bed and constantly having tantrums, but amid his parents’ suffering he is practically alone. He’s intelligent and surprisingly insightful, but is ill-equipped to cope with knowledge of the evil people can perpetrate.


I found Only Child to sometimes be a little saccharine, but I was still impressed by it’s sheer emotion and how hard it is to put down.  I also occasionally got annoyed by the ongoing use of repetitive words and phrases, but I considered it to be part of the author’s attempt to get inside the head of a very young time. I can barely remember when I was six (weirdly enough, I think I remember Kindergarten better) so it’s amazing how well she pulls off writing the story in Zach’s voice. It’s a part of childhood that’s difficult for most people to recall, and people tend to look at kids that age as having irritating or unreasonable emotions. When you’re little, everything that happens seems so big, a broken cookie could result in a meltdown of misery.


But something as horrible as what happened to Zach is hard for him to process, and he keeps talking about his brother in the present tense and retreats further and further into himself. Zach was a little too precocious at times and he seemed to listen in, inadvertently or not, on about a zillion adult conversations. That said, he was a great character. By comparison, most of the other characters were fairly one-dimensional, but that was okay because the narrator was so well-written. The greatest strength of Zach’s character was how he establishes himself as a richly complex character rather than a run-of-the-mill ‘hurt child’ archetype.


I think the novel’s biggest weakness was the ending.  *MILD SPOILER* It just felt like the family members took leaps and bounds towards healing a little too quickly and conveniently, and the parents apparently being able to save their marriage was optimistic to the point of being wildly implausible. *END OF MILD SPOILER* Also, even though it’s just a minor criticism, I sometimes felt that Only Child was a little too topical, in that the author seemed to be stuffing as many hot-button issues involving mass shootings into the book as she possibly could. It reminded me a little of Jodi Picoult (not in a good way.) Nonetheless, I thought this novel was very well-done and I’m excited to read whatever Navin puts out next.

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