The Family Fang author creates an affecting fantasy about siblings who spontaneously combust when upset.
A cashier in drab stores, Lillian lives with her sour mother and has a history of cheap pot and cheap boyfriends.
Megabucks Madison wants her to be nanny to twin stepkids, children of Madison’s white-teethed-senator husband (and probable next Secretary of State). The job comes with a stratospheric salary and designer guest-house accommodation on the father’s estate. Ten-year-old Roland and Bessie are intelligent and sensitive and ready to love their new carer. There’s just one small issue: when upset or angry, they burst into flame.
The flames are beautiful, flickering blue and gold like angels’ wings. They leave the twins unharmed, but nearby people get singed, the guest house’s antique furniture is suffering, and the local fire brigade is called out embarrassingly often.
Dickens tried the spontaneous combustion thing in Bleak House. Kevin Wilson takes it several conflagrations further in this fantasy with feeling.
In different ways, kids and keeper have been sentenced to life imprisonment. Senator Jasper wants the former out of sight in case they compromise his career. Money will keep Lillian locked in silence, just as it locked away the truth at boarding school. Spoiler evasion there.
But our gutter-mouthed heroine isn’t put off that easily. She grows and gentles, acknowledging the “desperate need that opened you up even if you didn’t want to”. She and her incandescent charges start plotting their jailbreak.
It’s entertaining and affecting. The logistics of the unbelievable are niftily itemised. Are Roland and Bessie allowed spicy foods? Do they need sunscreen when the burning issue comes from inside? Is it appropriate to say something is a hot idea?
There’s satisfyingly subversive satire. The senator’s unctuous public pronouncements on family duty make his twins smoulder – literally. Lillian’s luxury accommodation turns out to be the plantation’s former slave quarters.
It never lapses into schmaltz, just revels in it a few times. Wilson even evokes sympathy for weird, wounded, cosmically rich Madison and her other child, “an expensive teddy bear that had turned human”.
Things kick along to a lurid and – ta-da! – fiery climax, where nothing ends too cosily. Don’t read it too fast, or you’ll miss a lot of small felicities. “Aw, wow!” combines with “Aw, shucks!” disarmingly well.
NOTHING TO SEE HERE, by Kevin Wilson (Text Publishing, $37)
This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.