How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?
I need to be explicitly upfront about this novel and its raw topics before I feel dive into this review. This book surrounds the tragic event of a fictional high school shooting in Australia. It provided insight into grief and loss, poverty, domestic abuse, neglect and suicide. These are heavy topics but if you are up to it, do not let that deter you. ‘When Only One’ is one of THE BEST books I’ve read this year and I have absolutely no doubt, in all fibres of my body, that this book will be winning awards in the Australian contemporary young adult category.
Let’s jump into talking about this special novel shall we?
Samson is a teenager, the eldest of five boys and belongs to an average income earning household. His father works a desk job while his mother is unfaltering in her Catholic faith, stability and routine at home with five boys. Sam’s home structure is just that – stable. However his reemerged best friend, Emily, comes from a household that is anything but stable. Her father works when he wants too, drinks too much and is abusive toward her mother. Cynthia, Emily’s mum, suffers from mental illness which becomes quite evident early on in the book. Her mother collects shoes and requires a ‘shoe-toll’ before Emily or Sam can enter the house. She hoards these shoes and gathers them around her for a sense of comfort. The shoe collecting is quite humorous at times with Emily and Sam searching all over town for shoes, to Emily missing her shoes within the floor to ceiling shoe garage, to Sam giving up his good runners for a desperate chance to speak with Emily. Until one afternoon when Emily’s dad snaps – the humour is gone.
Emily’s household is violent, neglectful and poverty-stricken. The local town, school and teenagers know this but nobody believes they can or should do anything to help, as they themselves would rather turn a blind eye and continue on with their safe and comfortable lives. Emily finds her solace and safety in sneaking through Sam’s bedroom window and sleeping on top of his clean bed. Sam lets her, while he takes the bean bag. Emily sometimes stays for meals, plays with Sam’s brothers and gets driven around by Sam’s mum if they both need to go somewhere. However, there is always this divide and ‘frowned-upon’ nature that Sam’s mother holds towards Emily. She will never quite let her be a part of their family, even though it is clearly obvious that she needs help. Emily is also adamant on refusing help, claiming she can handle the cards life has dealt her, but she’s only a teenager. She shouldn’t have to handle these challenges on her own, let alone suffer the consequences of them.
Sam and his close group of guy friends are all training for the Ironman Championship and sporting scholarship. They all want to be fit, athletic and well trained sportsmen, like on the Nutri-grain cereal box. His closest friends consist of; Daniel – a flirtatious Italian; Jeff – quiet and hardworking; Patrick – from a well off family but doesn’t like to admit it; and Milo – who grew up on a dairy farm, his mother committed suicide from postnatal depression, leaving Milo, his under 1 year old sister and their father falling apart. There is a piercing passage on pg. 218 that throws the social divisions of Australian high school and small town communities in your face. It reads;
“At our school, there are three main factions. First, there’s the rich kids from town. They mostly have two working parents and a swimming pool. Then there’s us, mid-grounders. We live in town but the wrong side of the main road. We mostly have stay-at-home mums or single parents. We have clean clothes and brushed hair, but our uniforms are clearly from the faded second-hand box and not shiny and bright from the uniform shop. Jeff, Daniel and I fall into that category. Patrick likes to pretend he does, but he’s secretly a rich kid. Then there’s the third faction: the farm kids and derros who live on the outskirts. The Emilys and Milos of the school. The ones with foetal alcohol syndrome, or mums with no teeth, or brothers in jail, or dads with restraining orders against them. They are the ones who hardly ever last to the end of Year 10.”
Meg’s ability to put social hierarchy in such plain words created real feeling for me. I believe it rang true in its bluntness and clear vision through the teenage eyes of Sam, who is discovering the awareness of adversity and privilege all around him. From this, Sam is learning the unwavering power and influence that adversity and privilege have over a persons life. One teenager in this story who was aware of their privilege was Rei. Rei has recently moved to Sam’s school and it was love at first sight for him. Her Asian background and unidentified faith plagued Sam’s mother at times, but he does truly love Rei. Rei advocates for social justice, wins schooling debates and cries over inequalities. Meg does a great job of still painting Rei as a young teenager, with emotion led decision making, self-confidence issues and the feelings of grief and loss surrounding migrating to a new country.
Ultimately, the adversities, disadvantages and addictions faced by the characters in this story, create the demise for severe loss of mental control and physical actions. The escalation is chilling, sickening and unexplainable, but arguably explainable from the perspective of the one character committing the action. I have to say that the novel does not keep you in this heaviness. It gives the reader a clear feeling of immediate grief and how that looks in the realistic lives of teenagers, yet we also see and feel the ongoing cycle of grief. We learn its moving sensation and how it becomes a part of who you are, then you keep growing, then growing, then growing. To say this novel touched me is an understatement. Even now writing this review, I am flipping open pages and thinking gosh I want to write about this, and this, but I can only give you so much book lovers. I need to leave the rest up to you 💖