This set up might sound familiar because Wilson has recycled it from his bestselling 2011 debut novel, The Family Fang. It is, in basic outline, the plot of the movie that the book’s heroine, Annie Fang, winds up working on after she gets her life together.
And you can see why Wilson has returned to it, or why he never let it go, because the image of these half-wild 10 year olds from a broken home, cared for by a sympathetic stranger and literally burning with emotions they can’t express and don’t understand is fascinating.
Banish memories of the filthy rag-dealer Krook of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House whose spontaneous fiery demise stinks out the neighbourhood; when these kids go up in flames it’s clean and bright and beautiful. And, of course, they remain completely unharmed.
It’s an image – all this burning and yearning – that might have been inspired by the sentimental warblings of a pop chanteuse. You can almost hear Bella Thorne on the soundtrack to the inevitable movie adaptation: we’ll burn so bright, making all the people come to life.
But in Wilson’s hands the symbolism is surprisingly poignant. Even though the twins aren’t hurt by the flames, their extreme weirdness makes them vulnerable. And that’s what Lillian responds to as she struggles to win their trust. She is attracted by their dangerousness and their fragility.
‘‘I had never wanted kids, because I had never wanted a man to give me a kid,’’ she says. ‘‘But if a hole in the sky opened up and two weird children fell to Earth, smashing into the ground like meteorites, then that was something I could care for.’’
Wilson certainly has a good ear for the voices of teens and tweens, but it sometimes seems as if that’s all he has an ear for because the adults in this book – even the grave senator – end up sounding like prickly adolescents.
Lillian herself is notably jejune, at least in the beginning, with her sophomore epiphanies about parental responsibility, her slangy exclamations and her unshakeable conviction that inherited wealth is the greatest blessing imaginable.
But it’s all part of the cartoonish attraction of Nothing to See Here. And, to Wilson’s credit, there is none of the laboured self-consciousness often associated with this sort of surreal fable. Yes, the book has more than a touch of the fantastical but it never lapses into wilful kookiness.
All three of Wilson’s novels and a good proportion of his short stories are about strange parents or guardians and their even stranger children. And it’s undeniable that he has a talent for defamiliarising childhood, for making it seem like the most luminous of all human mysteries.
Naturally, a movie version is already in the works and the same writing team responsible for The Fault in Our Stars (2014) has been tasked with the adaptation. Their job should be straightforward, however, because the plot is already pretty streamlined.
But you should try this oddly tender novel first because the language is so exuberant and the descriptions – of the sun and the water and the endless green lawn of the senator’s Tennessee estate – are never less than vivid.
And the unflagging optimism of Lillian as she cares for the two combustible kids and teaches them all she knows – and learns a thing or two herself – is sure to kindle all sorts of warm feelings.