I heard the conceit of Nothing To See Here and it was all I needed to know. “A politician’s kids spontaneously combust, threatening his political career” – I am HERE FOR IT! I rushed out to find myself a copy immediately.

Nothing To See Here - Kevin Wilson - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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So, in 1995, Lillian is 28-years-old and down on her luck, living in her mother’s attic in Tennessee. She could’ve lived the good life instead – she could’ve been a contender! – but her mother was bribed into letting her take the fall for her roommate’s drug possession back in high school. So, she drifts from shitty job to shitty job, barely able to see past the fog of poverty and depression. She has a dark sense of humour and a wicked pragmatism that I thoroughly enjoy.

The inciting incident of Nothing To See Here comes when Lillian receives a letter, from that roommate who escaped a drug charge. Madison is every bit as luminous and charismatic as she was in high school, but now she’s a senator’s wife and lives in a mansion paid for with his family’s wealth. Madison writes to Lillian, begging her to come take her up on a “job opportunity”. Lacking any better options, Lillian accepts.

She doesn’t know until she gets there that the “job opportunity” is taking care of Madison’s step-kids. Who spontaneously combust, at inconvenient times. They need to be kept out of sight, and out of mind.

Seriously, they spontaneously combust. Just… whoosh!

‘How are they still alive?’ I asked.

‘It doesn’t hurt them at all,’ she said, shrugging to highlight how dumbfounded she was. ‘They just get really red, like a bad sunburn, but they’re not hurt.’

‘What about their clothes?’ I asked.

‘I’m still figuring this out, Lillian,’ she said. ‘I guess their clothes burn off.’

‘So they’re just these naked kids on fire?’

‘I think so. So you can understand why we’re worried.’

Nothing TO See Here

Lillian agrees to look after these “fire children” for the summer, keeping them out of view of the media and Madison’s husband’s political opponents. (Needless to say, “fire children” might pose a problem for his future presidential aspirations.) That’s easier said than done, but Lillian’s willing to give it a crack for some money in the bank and the chance of a fresh start.

Nothing To See Here is a novel about class, about the divide between wealth and poverty. Lillian’s entire life trajectory is changed, first by Madison’s crime (which wasn’t even a blip on her own record, expunged by money and influence), then by Madison’s exploitation of her desperation in seeking her out for help. It’s a powerful allegory for the limitations of class mobility and inequity of opportunity.

If you were rich, and you were a dude, it really felt like if you just followed a certain number of steps, you could do pretty much whatever you wanted.

Nothing To See Here

As much as Lillian envies Madison’s wealth and privilege, though, Wilson does manage to sneak some sympathy in the side entrance. Madison’s preoccupation with “appearances” and politics prevents her from developing any kind of relationship with the children, a relationship that Lillian ultimately finds immensely rewarding and fulfilling (though, obviously, not without its challenges).

It’s also a fascinating study of female friendship, with Lillian and Madison being essentially grown “frenemies”, while still caring deeply for one another. There are queer overtones, with Lillian’s admiration for Madison tipping over into outright lust at times. It’s difficult to understand, unless you’ve been a woman in this kind of friendship, what would make Lillian feel in anyway drawn to or obligated to Madison after what happened in high school – but she does. It’s one of those illogical relationships that somehow makes perfect sense, and Wilson renders it beautifully on the page.

There was less about the politician husband than I expected. I thought this novel was going to be along the lines of Veep, but it was more like My Brilliant Friend – except more humorous and pithy. So, I guess I’d call Nothing To See Here contemporary feminist fiction meets political satire with a speculative fiction element. That’s one heck of a combination, I know, but Wilson truly nails it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Nothing To See Here:

  • “Interesting premise – a pair of twins who burst into flames now and again when they are upset. Implausible? Sure, but that’s beside the point. He never explains why the kids catch fire and you don’t expect him to – all kids catch on fire now and again in a sense. It’s one of them metaphor things.” – Dave the L
  • “I tend to prefer a more serious genre, but once in a while I need to lighten up and this story did it for me. I wasn’t even offended by the main character’s intermittent use of the F word because it was an essential contribution to her character.” – vito catalfio
  • “Stupid . No plot, no body, no reality. So many holes in this book that the pages could be made of Swiss cheese.” – VLK
  • “I just didn’t like this story how Madison hired Lillian to look after her step children who seemed to also catch on fire. Very far fetched story.” – Harrison Shapiro
  • “The simplistic story line, cardboard characters, and uninteresting writing do not reward the time spent reading. The author titled the book correctly: There’s Literally NOTHING to See Here.” – Readerphile