My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
This book is the subject of a book discussion group to which I belong. If it wasn’t I might not have finished it but, as is the case with most books that are the subject of book groups in which I enjoy membership, the book was worth pursuing to the end.
The book starts with the rape of a 14 year old local track star, Lindsay, an attractive, but not ravishingly beautiful, nice neighborhood girl who attracts the attention of many boys in the neighborhood and school. This lets us know immediately that this book won’t be a breezy read. As expected, the event profoundly impacts her, her family members, and their family relationships. But we only experience these impacts through the eyes of the unnamed narrator, a boy neighbor who is 13 years old at the time of the event and in the full throes of a crush—on Lindsay. Our narrator is initially a suspect but his ignorance of what “rape” means and involves is so clear that he is quickly dismissed as a suspect. The reader’s opinion of his innocence is tested, however, as he reveals the kinds of feelings he has for Lindsay and the things he does to observe her. The crush is better termed an obsession and his innocence is thwarted through associations with a neighbor who is the adopted son of a family who has fostered many children. The narrator obtains, from this neighbor boy, a disturbing photo of Lindsay taken by the boy’s adopted father, and thus brings another person into the list of potential rapists. We’re given hints that that this family’s fostering involved likely horrendously damaging hurt inflicted on the children by at least the foster father, with minimally the knowledge of the foster mother. The author also spends a number of pages discussing the Jeffry Dahlmer serial killing case that occurred during the time of the story. Thus the book has a Law and Order SVU type plot serving as an overarching plotline for the book and ventures well into other types of horrors that humans can inflict on one another and on children. This is the source of my discomfort with this book. Despite being a fan of law/order procedurals, I don’t appreciate the SVU version or stories involving serial killers.
Fortunately, the book dramatically departs from Law and Order SVU-type offering on several accounts. First, the crime remains publically unsolved, although the narrator may have discovered implicating evidence that isn’t shared, and no one gets resolution or closure as a result. This is perhaps not satisfying for the reader, but the impact of lack of resolution on the narrator both personally and as a result of its impact on those around him, including Lindsay, is more interesting. Second, a central focus of the book is the life and development of the narrator. We learn about the rhythms of life in the suburban Baton Rouge neighborhood pre-rape as see through the eyes of the narrator, including the games the neighborhood kids (including Lindsay) played and the lushness of the wooded area in which their neighborhood was set. We learn about the breakup of the narrator’s parents’ marriage and the further damage inflicted on the family by the death of the narrator’s sister. We see the narrator grow in his understanding of the impact of the rape on Lindsay through their late night phone calls and we see the evolution of the narrator’s obsession with Lindsay.
The third aspect that separates this book from a typical SVU story is the homage the author pays to his hometown of Baton Rouge. He spends a fair number of pages on the differences between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and works to fill in the gap of most readers’ knowledge about Baton Rouge. In particular he works to fully convince the readers that Baton Rouge should not feel guilty that it isn’t like New Orleans.
An interesting question is whether the narrator really ever understands the impact of the rape on Lindsay—both the physical rape itself and the revelation to her schoolmates that she had been raped. Since the rape occurred during the summer and since it was so quietly investigated, the kids at school were unaware of the event until it’s revealed by the narrator in the school yard. The revelation is not intended to be hurtful and neither Lindsay nor the school kids are supported by adults at the school in how to work through how to digest this information. Perhaps this would be different in 2017 or at least one can hope it would be. The narrator does get a small glimpse of the depth of despair to which Lindsay has fallen and remains several years after the event when she states she sometimes wishes she were dead and the narrator recognizes that she means it. Of course he is not equipped to help her nor is he inclined to think he might aid her in getting some help. Only when he is in his thirties and runs into her at a football game does he seem to begin to truly understand the long-term effect this event and corresponding exposure of it has had on Lindsay.
M.O. Walsh has told interviewers that he feels he “got lucky with this one” that his book received exposure and recognition in the face of a vast number of other books published in the same year. Kirkus Reviews concludes its review of the book with “Celebrate, fiction lovers: The gods of Southern gothic storytelling have inducted a junior member.”
I do look forward to future offerings from the author although I also hope he doesn’t feel compelled to follow a trend I’m seeing in recent literature and which he used here—to use deeply evil acts as a device to explore human nature.