Thank you to NetGalley and Penzler Publishers for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest review!
What’s new, everyone? The Only Child, the just-published mystery novel by Kayte Nunn (The Botanist’s Daughter), follows a slow-burn mystery that cuts back and forth between the past and the present. First, there’s the year 1949, during which a pregnant teenage girl named Brigid is shipped off to Fairmile, a home for unwed mothers that resides on Orcades Island in Puget Sound. This is an environment that pressures the moms-to-be to place their babies for adoption rather than letting them bring the babies back home, with authoritarian Catholic nuns in place to maintain the strict rules and instill shame in the young women who are carrying children out of wedlock. Then there’s the other half of the plot, which is set in 2013 and follows former city police detective Frankie Gray as she’s moving from Australia to the U.S., relocating to Orcades Island, and reuniting with her daughter Izzy after a separation period of five years. It initially looks like Frankie and Izzy will have plenty of time to focus on reconnecting, but then a former Fairmile nun dies under dubious circumstances at an assisted living facility. The situation only grow murkier when an infant’s skeleton is dug up from Fairmile, which Frankie’s mother Diana has been renovating into an inn.
While this is being marketed as a mystery novel, I think it’s important to clarify that this isn’t the kind of mystery that hinges on jaw-dropping twists and quick pacing. Instead, it leans much more heavily toward setting up a moody, almost smoky atmosphere that slowly draws you in and incrementally builds up the tension until a specific reveal that greatly escalates the pressure at the start of the third act, shifting the tone into that of a full-on psychological thriller. Before that point, it’s all a slow-burn, so just make sure you keep that in mind while reading The Only Child.
The 2013 timeline is pretty engaging as Frankie resolves to learn if foul play was involved in the nun’s death, figure out what happened to the baby corpse who’d been unearthed from Fairmile, and rebuild a loving relationship with Izzy. But there were points where I wasn’t as interested in the present-day plot as I felt like I should have been; the deliberate pacing might have played a role in that. Personally, I was more enthralled by the 1949 timeline and the hardships that Brigid had to bear at Fairmile. It’s quite timely, considering our current state of abortion healthcare and all the women who have been—and are being—coerced into enduring childbirth.
Overall, segments of The Only Child can be a slog to read through, but I think it’s worth picking up, especially if its historical context appeals to you.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 77/100