Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Kayte Nunn is the author of The Only Child. It is her seventh book and all her previous novels have been very popular and published in several languages. The Botanist’s Daughter won the Winston Graham Historical Fiction Prize in 2020.
In the Acknowledgement section of this latest book, the author tells the reader that this story is based on real life experiences of young girls during the 1950s-1970s in many countries in the world. This was a time when pregnancy outside of marriage saw many young girls, some as young as thirteen, sent away from home to church facilities where their new-born children were adopted to ‘good catholic families’. Almost every graduating class had a girl who disappeared. In the time period written about in this story, one-and-a-half million babies were given up for adoption in the United States (355).
Much emphasis since then has been placed on the effect adoption has had on the children but little concern has been given to the mothers. These girls were rejected by their families, treated badly in some of the institutions to which they were sent and left traumatised from an experience they were un-prepared for and the loss of their child.
Kayte Nunn has, in this book, allowed these young girls’ experiences to see the light of day at a time when society is more understanding and accepting. But she reminds the reader that ‘Fiction is about what is possible, not what is actual’ (356). She says her imaginings, based on what she has researched, are not to be construed as real. The places and people may not be real but what some of the girls experience in the story is based on reality.
The author has revealed her narrative through two storylines. In 2013, an old home is bought and is in the process of being brought back to life. In 1949, this was the destination for unfortunate girls who found themselves in the shameful situation of being pregnant. The new owner is the daughter of one of these girls. Her mother now resides nearby in a retirement home. The protagonist is her daughter who will take up a job in law-enforcement in the area in the near future. Her daughter, who has been living with her father and new partner joins her for the holidays.
The narration swings from the stories in both time periods and when one of the retirement home residents, a retired nun, is found dead in unusual circumstances the two stories begin to dovetail. The story is an interesting tale revealing attitudes from the time periods in which the storylines are set. The characters feel real, none are perfect. There are those who are helpful and those who are hurtful. One thing I found unusual was that the nuns in the early story all seemed to be smokers.
Although the protagonist does not take up her new position until a later date, she cannot help but become involved in the investigation resulting in her being targeted by someone who does not want the truth to be revealed. This builds the tension strengthening the reader’s determination to find out what happens.
The topics addressed in the story require sensitivity and this is handled well. Kayte Nunn’s work is always well crafted. These two stories never seem too far apart. They always seem connected. Her introduction of a large overcoat one girl is given when she leaves home seems insignificant at the time, but it plays a crucial role in the story towards the end.
The title of the book had me wondering which character this was meant to be. There were three women from four generations of the one family who could have been that child. Or was it the only surviving child from the birth of twins, who was adopted then in later life reconciled with his birth mother. This no doubt adds to the element of mystery in the storyline, as do the bones discovered during the renovation. And who was responsible for the death of the retired nun?
As usual, I found this historical mystery by Kayte Nunn very fascinating and believable and would recommend it to all avid readers.
The Only Child
by Kayte Nunn