Title: When Only One
Author: Meg Gatland-Veness
Publisher: Pantera Press
Published: 31st May 2022
Synopsis: ‘There’s someone in the school. Someone who’s not supposed to be there. This person is walking towards the classroom. They’re holding something in their hands. Something terrifying.’
Sam lives with his mum, dad and four brothers in a small farming town. At his school, there are three main factions: the rich kids, the mid-grounders and the farm kids who live on the outskirts. Sam is a comfortable mid-grounder and life is pretty good. He works as a lifeguard at the local surf club, is saving to buy his first car, he’s training with his friends for the Ironman challenge, and on Sunday afternoons he and his family take care packages to their less fortunate neighbours. Then, five years since they last spoke, Emily Burrow climbs back into Sam’s life and everything changes.
Emily’s life is very different to Sam’s – her absent father has returned and her mum struggles with her mental health. Sam does his best to be there for Emily when he wasn’t for so long, but there seems to be no right way to help her.
When Rei starts at school, Sam is smitten. Rei’s parents are social workers, she’s from the rich side of town, and her life seems a thousand miles away from how the kids on the outskirts live. In a world that’s ill-equipped to support kids struggling with unseen burdens, is there a way to help Emily before the worst happens?
From the bestselling author of I Had Such Friends comes a novel that’s gritty, full of heart and shines a light on kids who are doing it tough in a rural Australian town.
Sam and Emily live in a small farming town near the coast in the late nineteen eighties. Sam lives with four brothers and his parents in a very devout Catholic household that does not allow for much breakaway from those beliefs. Emily lives with a mentally ill mother and abusive father. The two were best friends in primary school – until the summer before they started high school. Now, they haven’t spoken to each other for five years. One night, she climbs into his window, trying to escape her abusive home, and everything changes. Sam has spent the past five years hanging around his sporty friends – Milo, Patrick, and a few others, and now, Emily is going to be part of his group again.
Once they’re back at school, Sam and Emily meet the new girl, Rei. Sam falls in love, and Rei and Emily become friends. But something is bubbling beneath the surface with Milo and Emily, whose living situations slip under the radar – and then an unthinkable tragedy rocks the town – showing that life isn’t always what we think it is, and the quietest people are often the ones crying out for help.
Sam and Emily’s story reminds us how powerful and important childhood friendships and strong support systems can be. It shows that sometimes the only way to help people is to get adults with the expertise in those situations involved so the people you care about can get the help they need. I found this book to be evocative and contemplative as it explored different ways of living, and the idea of religion and its strong role in some people’s lives, and the various responses to it within one family – Sam’s family. Each sibling had a different approach to religion but the two that stood out were Sam and his indifference, his desire to break free and not be constrained as shown by his actions – spending time with Emily, dating Rei for example. And George, who was staunchly against his Catholic upbringing and would do all he could to announce he was breaking free. I felt these two stood out because they illustrated two diverse ways that raising a child in a religion-dominated household can do. I felt it was very well done as it allowed all the characters to show the reader what they believed in without being offensive or being too didactic, which is always awesome in young adult and kids novels. Just showing readers what the possibilities are and eventually, how people can change the way they view the world within a strict and didactic belief like that was exquisitely done and I think it will speak to the various experiences of many readers.
Meg’s novel showed that there are flaws in all facets of society. In religion, in how we deal with people who are not like us – in this novel, it was very much class and wealth based more than anything else, but this illustrated what it means to judge people and the consequences of judging them or ignoring those people who really need help because someone deems they’re not worthy – an assumption that can lead to the tragedy like in the book, which had complex layers of mental health, abandonment and what felt like a cry for help. It was a tragedy that affected many, and each section counted down – right up until one hour before. The last few chapters had a heightened tension to them as I could see everything coming together – and wanted to do all I could to help stop it.
The emotional rollercoaster of this book will affect readers in different ways, and reading in the light of the latest school shooting in America was an interesting experience – contrasting how two events with one common feature occurred – one fictional in 1987, a mere nine years before the massacre that would bring in strict gun laws to Australia and where everyone was in shock, and one a real event that continues to happen, and with so much more death than this novel. It was heartbreaking in a way, knowing all of this, and knowing or sensing what was to come, as each chapter began with quotes referring to the event, which slowly built up what we knew as readers. It is one of those books that as a reader, there is a sense of helplessness at times, hope at others, and at the end, a feeling of being unsure of what to do, like many of the characters.
A deeply thoughtful book about mental health and all kinds of violence, and one that is important in so many ways.