Book Review: The Only Child by Kayte Nunn

In Kayte Nunn's taut whodunit The Only Child, a long-closed home for “fallen women” is the site of horrors old and new. Check out Doreen Sheridan's review!

Frankie Gray is determined to make this summer a perfect one to reconnect not only with her teenage daughter Izzy but also with her own mother and grandmother on small Orcades Island in the Puget Sound. Ingrid, the family matriarch, has a coveted spot in the Pacifica Gardens nursing home there, while Frankie’s mom Diana is rehabilitating at Fairmile, a former admiral’s residence, with the intent of turning the dilapidated property into a bed and breakfast. Frankie herself has just accepted a position with the island’s sheriff’s department but isn’t due to start till September, giving her a few months to focus on repairing her own strained relationship with her daughter. Izzy lives most of the year with her father Lucas in California, a decision the amicably divorced parents agreed to when Frankie accepted a policing job in Australia over five years ago.

All Frankie’s good intentions fall to the wayside, however, when one of Ingrid’s fellow nursing home residents is murdered. Deputy Molly Dowd seems to have it all under control, but freely admits she lacks the staffing to investigate as thoroughly as she’d like. Frankie can’t help pitching in, if only out of concern for her own grandmother’s well-being.

The deeper Frankie delves into the life of the victim, however, the more unsettled she becomes. The dead woman, Bernadette Evans, was once known as Sister Agatha, and had worked at Fairmile when it was a mother-and-baby home. The Catholic institution had taken in young unwed mothers, then adopted their babies out to “deserving” couples. Frankie is perhaps naively astounded by the stories and numbers she uncovers in the course of her investigations:

Until that moment, she had, like many she supposed, more sympathy for the children who had been adopted, the sense of loss they often felt, and hadn’t considered how shameful and devastating it must have been for the birth mothers of those children. Even though she’d seen the figures from the Fairmile ledgers, she was shocked by the numbers involved. According to one of the books, between 1945 and 1973 some one and a half million babies were adopted in the US. That meant there had been one and a half million girls (give or take)–mothers–most of whom were given no choice but to give away their babies.

Things get even darker when renovation work on the grounds of her mother’s dream B&B uncovers a tiny skeleton. Could this be connected somehow to Bernadette’s death? Regardless, someone wants Frankie to quit looking into the matter, and will seemingly stop at nothing, including threatening not only Frankie’s life but her loved ones’ too, to make sure that Fairmile’s secrets stay buried where they belong.

While I was a little surprised at the idea that the pain of the adopted is given more coverage than the pain of the mothers who are too often coerced into give up their children, I did think this was a good attempt at bringing to light the injustices of forced birth and forced separation, particularly in the United States’ current political climate. Kayte Nunn interweaves the outrages of the past with the family dynamics of four strong, modern women as they confront their own history and the secrets they’ve kept from one another. The chapters go back and forth in time: In 2013, Frankie juggles uncovering the truth with caring for her family, while in 1949 the poisonous heart of Fairmile is gradually revealed, in part through the actions of one sinister woman:

She is doing God’s work, and what greater glory is there than that? Helping these sinful girls, sheltering them, when no one else will. Their families certainly don’t want them, not after what they’ve done, the shame they’ve brought on themselves and their kin. These girls have sinned in the worst possible way; how could there not be a seed of evil in each of them? It is her responsibility, her calling, to rid them of it, just as they are relieved of the results of their sin, their babies given to righteous, Catholic, couples.

Despite the specters of death and malice that loom over both eras, the power of a mother’s love is the main throughline of each. Frankie must protect her daughter even as she uncovers uncomfortable truths about her own mom. Back in 1949, a young woman known only as Brigid must fight to keep her child even when all the odds are stacked against her. Readers will root for both women as the narrative reveals just how closely their stories are intertwined.

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    When I read The Only Child I will have indescribable emotions, nostalgia for the past, for loved ones,… all of which are so familiar.

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