There were moments during My Sunshine Away where I felt unsettled enough to consider whether I wanted to continue reading. M.O. Walsh’s debut novel isn’t at all grisly or gruesome in how it tells of the impact a teenager’s rape has on her community. In fact, even with its intense honesty, the writing is rich and syrupy in how carefully the words have been selected. Still, with the nameless narrator’s zealous adolescent infatuation with the victim and the early knowledge that he’s in the mix of suspects, it takes great trust from the reader not to run away from the now 30-something’s recollections of the 1989 watershed in their lives. This is definitely a book you’ll be glad you stuck out though. Surprisingly it has little to do with the thriller aspect.
Lindy Simpson is a typical young, American athlete. Her self-confidence has a magnetism that draws others to her; an endearing competitive attitude to life that makes her highly desirable company. Our narrator remembers the moment he fell in love with her, as small children so horrified at viewing the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that Lindy found herself drenched in pink vomit. In that instant, his desire to both protect and envelope her entire presence makes for a heated obsession that puts their hormone fuelled friendship in a continuous cycle of silence and reconciliation. When Lindy’s innocence is torn from her one summer’s evening, the fallout from her rape doesn’t just alter the path of her own life. The tragedy has real and rippling consequences for all who know her, including our narrator.
Early on, there are moments where you feel as if you’d like to hear from Lindy herself. She is the one assaulted, they are her emotions, and yet we only ever hear from the narrator looking in on her experiences. They are his musings on how she might be feeling and changing and occasionally you want her to have her own voice for the sake of clarification. Via her exchanges with him, we do get some insight and she points out that nobody fully understands how she feels, though generally it’s his interpretation of what her actions and reactions might have meant.
What’s clear as the story progresses and particularly as we move toward its conclusion, is that the grim crime kicking things off is merely a vehicle for our narrator’s story. It’s a novel about youth, confusing sexual heat and ultimately about how necessary but inherently unreliable our memories are. Much like the narrator looks back on how his family, relationships and friendships coloured their premature marches into adulthood, you get the sense that the author too is pondering just how much our memories make up who we are. Our protagonist has personal tragedies and troubles to unravel too, which aren’t all directly connected to Lindy and that certainly influence the decisions he makes.
Intertwined with the narrative, the setting becomes a character all of its own. Baton Rouge, regularly touted in the book as New Orleans’ less flamboyant cousin, brings an unmistakable swampiness to the story. Even if you’ve never experienced summer in the deep American south, the heaviness of the heat hanging around them comes across beautifully in the writing. The thick Louisiana air surrounding the secrets and uncertainty makes for perfect bedfellows. The humidity delivered feels dense enough to slice, literally and within the fractured relationships put in front of us. Geography is also key to various pockets of the narrator’s memories. The timeline hops around as he rifles through his mental filing cabinet and even Hurricane Katrina’s events make their way into the story.
My Sunshine Away is a gripping read in terms of the writing. Addictive, even. It apparently took M.O. Walsh seven years of rewriting before he was happy that he’d made enough revisions, and that certainly shows. There’s real craft in how he’s constructed the story and the honeyed way he expresses even the most awkward of emotions. The fact that he manages to do that while also employing the ability to flip into thoughts that make us edgy and uncomfortable is impressive. The only major disappointment is that he currently has nothing new in the pipeline to follow it up.
My Sunshine Away is available in all formats from here.