“Hard not to fall in love with the little imp, isn’t it?”
In a word: Read the thing. This one was pretty fun, and weird. Also it’s less about the romance (although there is some of that in here) and more about the relationship between our narrator and main character, Jesse, and the little boy he can communicate with in his dreams, Stevie. The story is one part slice-of-life about the kids and staff of a residential clinic for autistic children, and one part courtroom thriller. Personally, my favourite parts were about life in the center (I was a TA in a past life), but the drama surrounding the court case and everything that followed had me hooked. There’s also a magical element with Jesse and Stevie’s mental connection (it’s not telepathy), which was explained just enough to have things make sense. The writing isn’t the best, but it’s not a disaster or anything, and it doesn’t really affect the story itself (although the plot probably tends to drag a bit if slice-of-life isn’t your thing). I enjoyed reading this, and there was enough cuteness and drama to keep me interested.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warning: This book contains homophobic language, child endangerment and injury, discussions of child sexual abuse, emotionally distressed children, and severe animal injury.
The Child: Jesse McKinnon has been searching for little Stevie Liston for six years and the circumstances surrounding them make that statement way less creepy than it sounds. Stevie is ten years old when the story starts, but he was only four when he first reached out and contacted Jesse in a dream. Stevie is an empath (or so Jesse figures), which apparently means that he can feel the emotions of the people around him. Stevie can’t control his powers so he is often overwhelmed, that in turn makes him display a lot of behaviours that one would find in a child with autism. Stevie is diagnosed as autistic and that is how he eventually ended up in a residential center for autistic children. Stevie displays a lot of the stereotypical symptoms associated with autism: he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t make eye contact, he can’t really take care of himself, he doesn’t handle change or transition well, and he tantrums and covers his ears when he becomes overwhelmed. The thing about Stevie is that it isn’t clear whether he is actually autistic or if it’s just his inability to control his empathy that’s causing all these problems. It’s interesting to read any scene with him in it because you’re always trying to figure that out. He improves immensely when Jesse first appears, but he also still retains some behaviours and no one can tell whether he’s genuinely autistic or if this is all learned. Either way, Stevie isn’t a normal child (autism and empathy aside), he’s ten years old but he sometimes comes off as younger, and he doesn’t seem to have figured out who he is as a person. He doesn’t seem to have much of a personality beyond ‘cute mystical child character’, but that’s most likely down to his upbringing.
The Couple: Jesse’s relationship with Stevie is the main focus of the story, but that doesn’t stop Jesse from finding love at the center. Drew Ferguson started working at the center a few months before Stevie was admitted. He and Jesse don’t interact much at the beginning because everyone is focused on Stevie and his new accomplishments. Jesse is attracted to Drew immediately (the book is only written in Jesse’s first person point of view so we don’t hear any of Drew’s initial thoughts about the whole thing), but he doesn’t pursue anything at first because he doesn’t know if Drew is actually gay (Jesse himself is bisexual), and he’s busy with Stevie. When things start to settle down a bit Jesse and Drew start hanging out outside of work, becoming fast friends. The potential to become something more is always there, but they don’t act on anything until the whole drama of Jesse’s false charges and arrest come around and Drew becomes someone for Jesse to lean on. A lot of the book is written in a way that Jesse summarises events for us after they happen, so Jesse and Drew do spend a lot of time together but we only get a run-down of their activities for the most part so we don’t see their relationship develop so much as we are told about it. Their relationship (outside of the whole trial business) is fairly uncomplicated, and the two of them have good chemistry (what we see of it). We all know from the get-go that they’re gonna end up together, but it’s still nice to see it when it happens.
The Magic: Jesse and Stevie have a magical connection of sorts. It’s never really explained in the book, but that’s probably because Jesse doesn’t know much about it and he is the narrator. This isn’t a fantasy novel; aside from Jesse and Stevie’s empathetic connection there are no other magical/paranormal elements. Jesse mentions doing research and only coming up with three other similar cases. So Stevie’s abilities seem really unique. Basically if you came into this looking for fantastical world building you’re going to be disappointed. Stevie’s abilities are never really defined in the story, and it doesn’t help that there’s no real way to measure them as they don’t have very obvious impacts on the outside world. The most obvious one is his ability to communicate with Jesse via magic dream forest, in which Stevie goes into a trancelike state and meets up with Jesse in Jesse’s dream. His other less obvious ability is how Stevie is very profoundly affected by the emotions of the people around him (I say less obvious because when this happens to Stevie it looks like a child having a tantrum, no one’s first guess is ever magical empathy). Jesse describes him as an empath. Jesse himself doesn’t seem to have any abilities aside from grounding Stevie when other people’s emotions get to be too much for him (Drew calls him Stevie’s anchor).
The Villains: All the real conflict in this story gets started by one man: Chuck Tyler. Chuck is one of the staff at the center where Stevie lives, and has been for, I’m assuming, a few years (I don’t remember if it actually says how long). Chuck is an asshole, and we know he’s an asshole because Jesse pegs him as one as soon as they meet (not quite sure if this is because of any empathetic ability on Jesse’s part, or just lazy writing). Chuck is an egotistical, childish, homophobic, borderline-abusive sack of shit. He doesn’t get along much at all with any of the other staff members (Jesse and Drew especially) and he mistreats the children in his care. Now that I think of it, maybe he hasn’t been at the center for years; he’s really bad at his job. Why did they even hire him? Anyway, Chuck really has a grudge against Jesse and resents him for bringing Stevie out of his shell when Chuck himself was unable to. Chuck and Jesse are always getting after each other and it all comes to a head one day with a physical altercation and gross mistreatment of vulnerable children and Chuck gets fired. This turn of events is what gets our other villain involved. Bad Guy #2 is William Liston, Stevie’s politician father. Mr Liston is running for governor (of the town, I think) and he’s the one who comes forward and accuses Jesse of sexually abusing Stevie. Mr Liston is a real piece of work, he hasn’t seen his son in six years (ever since he put him in the center and fucked off) and no one but the center employees even knows that he has an older son (Stevie has a younger brother he’s never met and who isn’t in the story). Mr Liston does not visit Stevie and only sends the bare minimum cash payments towards Stevie’s care. It’s obvious that Mr Liston does not care at all about Stevie, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to use him to forward his political career. If it isn’t totally obvious, it’s Chuck that approached Mr Liston about the sexual abuse claims in order to ruin Jesse’s life for getting him fired. Chuck’s a complete asswipe, but he’s a smart one.
The Center: Most of the story takes place at the Lynneville Center for Children with Autism, which is a residential center for autistic children. The center is where the resident children sleep, eat, play, do therapy, and go to school. The caretakers, teachers, and doctors who work at the center do not live there. Stevie has been living at the center since he was four years old, and he’s been there for six years so it’s really the only place he’s ever known. Life at the center is structured around the needs of the children living there, and it seems like a pretty nice place to be. All the staff members (aside from Chuck, of course) seem like genuinely nice people and care for the children very much. Stevie is really the main focus of the story so we really don’t see much of the other children unless they’re directly interacting with Stevie. So we see some names here and there, but the only other child mentioned often enough is Ryan, a nine-year-old who bonds with Stevie over playing with blocks. Though even he doesn’t get that much screen time. I’m sure we don’t get a completely accurate depiction of what life in a residential center for autistic children would be like, but if that’s the kind of stuff you like to read about than you’ll enjoy those scenes. Another thing is that I like that the author doesn’t make it seem like putting your child in a home is the worst thing you could do as a parent. It does demonize Stevie’s father for doing it, but only because he pretty much put Stevie in there so that he wouldn’t have to deal with him, not because he figured that it was the best place for him. There are parental visits and spending money donations mentioned for the other children, so we know that this isn’t a place where the idea is that you can just dump your children there and that’s that. It’s a residential center where autistic children can be cared for when their parents aren’t able to fulfill all their needs in the home. Pretty much all of the side characters come from the center, the most prominent ones being Dottie, Jesse’s landlady, and Drew.
The Sex: There are a few sex scenes with Jesse and Drew towards the end of the book. They’re not much to write home about. A lot of the events in the book are written in a way that makes it seem that Jesse is looking back on them and summarising them for the readers. The sex scenes are written the same way. Not overly bad, just not really engaging. Jesse and Drew make a good couple though so you are happy that they’ve finally reached this stage in their relationship, it’s just not really an exciting read. Also it just skirts the edge of being explicit. The descriptions are very nearly vague, which reinforces the ‘summarising’ feeling.
The Writing: Wasn’t a big fan of the writing for this one. It’s written in first person, but I don’t find it was done very well. Either that or I just didn’t believe in Jesse’s voice. Another thing is that I think it was written to sound like someone remembering events that have already happened, like future Jesse is telling the story to us, but not done well. A lot of things that happened were kind of summarized. There was a lot of telling instead of showing, is what I’m getting at. I did enjoy reading the scenes of daily life at the center and hearing about how the children interacted with each other and the center staff. Basically any part that read like it was happening in ‘real time’ was good. The dialogue isn’t very good, which is mostly down to vocabulary choice. And that also affects the narration since it’s literally being told by Jesse in Jesse’s voice. The story itself is good and it was easy to get invested in it and in the characters, it’s just that the writing wasn’t really the best.
[What No One Else Can Hear was published July 27, 2015, and is available both in print and as an ebook]