REVIEW: Only Child, Rhiannon Navin

Monday, 14 May 2018


Huddled in a cloakroom with his classmates and teacher, six-year-old Zach can hear shots ringing through the corridors of his school. A gunman has entered the building and, in a matter of minutes, will have taken nineteen lives. In the aftermath of the shooting, the close knit community and its families are devastated. Everyone deals with the tragedy differently. Zach's father absents himself; his mother pursues a quest for justice -- while Zach retreats into his super-secret hideout and loses himself in a world of books and drawing. Ultimately though, it is Zach who will show the adults in his life the way forward -- as, sometimes, only a child can.


I wish that this book was purely fiction. All of my heart yearns for it to be false, for someone to tap me on the arm and tell me that this violence, this brutality that never seems to end, is just a twisted figment of my imagination.
But if this is a nightmare, it is not one that I am going to wake up from anytime soon.
Since that horrifying day at Sandy Hook Elementary School back in 2013, an event that Rhiannon Navin undoubtedly drew upon to create Zach’s heartbreaking narrative, there have been at least 239 school shootings worldwide.
239!
I mean… That is 239 schools full of students and staff who never have had to bear witness to such atrocities.
Honestly, I don’t even have the words.
Rhiannon Navin uses the perspective of six-year-old Zach, a child who should have remained oblivious, to paint an emotional and vivid portrait of childhood grief and the ways in which a young person, who has little grasp on the events that are going on around them, has to come to terms with something even adults are falling apart at. Zach approaches the subject in ways completely different to all the adults around him, and tries his hardest to find effective ways to deal with the loss of his brother, and the incessant and horrifying aftereffects of surviving the shooting. His perspective offers up a whole range of emotions and events that I doubt would be included if the narrator was an adult and, although the idea that he even has to go through this is absolutely heart-wrenching, in a way, his perspective also lends itself to be unexpectedly hopeful and honestly rather enchanting.
Only Child paints a portrait of a young family whose entire lives are destroyed in the space of a single day, and how they fight to put the shattered pieces back together as best as they know how. 
They are not perfect, it’s not easy, but grief never is. 
Especially one that comes as suddenly and as unexpectedly as this.
Rhiannon Navin also examines the all-encompassing effects that school shootings have on the community as a whole because, even though Zach’s family were one of the few who suffered a familial loss, the family doesn’t live in a bubble - other people lost friends, neighbours, extended family members, even acquaintances or people they said ‘hi’ to when they bumped into one another in the hall.
The community surrounding the school are close-knit, much like in real life, and I think showing the wider effects of the shooting really hammer home just how much of a plausible scenario, or even an inevitability, events like these are for so many people.
You read novels like this, or see school shootings unfolding in real-life, and it is so easy to see a community that you recognise - the same buildings, the same type of people, the same dynamics. A completely different subject, but I remember sitting in the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam absolutely sobbing because she wanted to be a journalist, and so did I. As if her story wasn’t horrendous enough, something then linked us throughout the decades, something I couldn’t ignore.
All atrocities happen to people who share even just one thing in common with ourselves, or with someone we love; they happen to people who have aspirations and goals and people who think they hung the stars.
And I think that we, as a community of people who love one another because of both our similarities and our differences, should do all that we can to make Zach’s story a less familiar one.


Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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