#SheReviews The Only Child by Kayte Nunn

March 20, 2023

Human rights violations are often thought, by we living in Western society, to have occurred and currently taking place in countries and societies that are diametrically opposite to our own. For instance, developing countries. Those in the West are frequently smug on this subject.

The human rights abuses that were ruthlessly meted out to unwed mothers in America in 1949/1950 are at the valiantly beating-heart of the latest exemplary novel, The Only Child, by powerhouse Australian author, Kayte Nunn.

The Only Child (a crime thriller), alternates effortlessly yet meaningfully between 1949/1950 during a vehemently disabling winter at the (fictional) Orcades Island in the Puget Sound, out from Seattle in the US state of Washington and a welcomingly idyllic (or is it) summer in 2013 on Orcades Island.

In the latter time frame (2013) Frankie Gray (39) has returned to the island after five years in Sydney in the police force. Frankie is due to take up the coveted position of deputy sheriff on Orcades Island. Her reasons for returning from her time working ‘down under’ are revealed during the course of the story. On Orcades Island, Frankie’s stoic mother, Diana, is in the process of painstakingly renovating the enormous house and surrounds of Fairmile, a once dilapidated but now refreshed property, once used by the Catholic Church in the twentieth century as a mother and baby home. Diana plans to make Fairmile a stylish Inn for discerning visitors.

Frankie’s stubborn, yet yearning for approval, fifteen year old  daughter, Izzy, is staying with Frankie and Diana at Fairmile for the summer, having been based with her father, Lucas, in L.A. for the past five years. Diana’s mother, Ingrid, irrevocably frail and suffering from dementia, is a placating resident of the island’s defiantly-standing nursing home, Pacifica Gardens.

Alarmingly, the body of Sister Bernadette (a resident) is found drugged and tied at Pacifica Gardens. Although not officially working as deputy, Frankie can’t help but investigate the murder case on her own terms.

When we are taken expeditiously to 1949/1950 at Fairmile and the ghoulish goings on there, we as readers are left saddened, stunned and aghast. The nuns there, particularly the cruel and uncaring Sister Agatha, are the girls’, who are temporarily staying at Fairmile, worst nightmare. Particular focus is given to a sixteen year old girl whose real name we are not told for some time, who is given a new name by the nuns (as all the girls are) of Brigid. The nuns obliteratingly coerce (aka force) the girls to give up their babies, and show no love to the girls in any form or manner.

Why was Sister Bernadette targeted (as Molly the Sheriff believes)? How is 

Sister Bernadette’s murder linked to Fairmile? 

Will Frankie be a key to solving the case? Can Frankie form a connection with Izzy again, after so long apart? What is going on with Frankie and the handsome Joe, a bartender at The Cabbage Shed? Why was Frankie so eager to leave Sydney?

What of the many cover-ups at Fairmile in the harsh winter of 1940/1950? What becomes of all the girls sent there? What does Brigid see and hear during her time at Fairmile?

Kayte has written an intellectually soaring indictment of the dubious ‘help’ and ‘assistance’ given to pregnant girls in 1949/1950 America (Kayte notes

in her acknowlegements that homes such as Fairmile “existed in almost every major US city (and in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia too)”.

Kayte additionally explains in acknowledgements that “Between 1945 and 1973 one-and-a-half million babies were given up for adoption in the United States”.

So much wisdom, knowledge, understanding and insight pervades each flawless page of this book. The characters are all richly detailed and completely believable. You will definitely need the tissues handy for this searing read.

Bravo Kayte! You’ve written yet another formidable novel. A crime thriller that takes one on a deep and timely journey to times and places I could almost ‘see’ and ‘feel’. I loved The Only Child, and can’t wait to see what Kayte writes next.


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