Title: My Sunshine Away
Author: M. O. Walsh
No. of Pages: 320
Genre: Literary Fiction
Origins: Putnam Adult
Release Date: 10 February 2015
Bottom Line: Stunning debut; this will go down as one of my favorite books of the year.
“My Sunshine Away unfolds in a Baton Rouge neighborhood best known for cookouts on sweltering summer afternoons, cauldrons of spicy crawfish, and passionate football fandom. But in the summer of 1989, when fifteen-year-old Lindy Simpson—free spirit, track star, and belle of the block—experiences a horrible crime late one evening near her home, it becomes apparent that this idyllic stretch of Southern suburbia has a dark side, too.
In My Sunshine Away, M.O. Walsh brilliantly juxtaposes the enchantment of a charmed childhood with the gripping story of a violent crime, unraveling families, and consuming adolescent love. Acutely wise and deeply honest, it is an astonishing and page-turning debut about the meaning of family, the power of memory, and our ability to forgive.”
Thoughts: The subject matter of My Sunshine Away is rough. Not only does it discuss Lindy’s rape and the lingering effects of it on her but also on the entire neighborhood, it also details the mindset of an adolescent boy. To make things even more uncomfortable for readers, the narrator is an adolescent boy obsessed with the very girl struggling to make sense of the crime done to her. This could turn My Sunshine Away into a very crude and uncomfortable story about one man’s biased version of a traumatic childhood event and other happenings during his formative years. Instead, under Mr. Walsh’s stellar prose, it becomes a stunning story about memory, family, secrets, and love.
From the opening chapter, readers know that they are in for something different, as the narrator sets the tone for the story by declaring himself one of the four suspects of Lindy’s crime. While this should make him an unreliable narrator, it instead establishes his honesty and willingness to tell the whole truth, no matter how poorly it reflects on his thoughts and actions. He is totally besotted with Lindy but hides nothing from readers. He is quite frank about his lewd sketches, his spying, his fantasies, and his collection of Lindy memorabilia. Again, this should disgust readers and turn them against him. Instead, he is so open and ashamed looking back on his behavior as an adult that readers have no issues forgiving him. In many ways, his inability to hide even his most perverted fantasies make him rather pathetic as he desperately seeks Lindy’s approbation regardless of what it means to his family and friends.
What prevents My Sunshine Away from being just another whodunnit about a long-ago unsolved crime is Mr. Walsh’s writing. Mr. Walsh captures the essence of what it was like to grow up during the early 1990s. The narrator’s recall of huge events like the Challenger tragedy, the discovery and subsequent trial of the Dahmer murders, and so forth are evocative and immediately place readers back to those key dates in their own lives. However, it is his description of the mundane details of life before computers, when watching TV was a family event and talking on the phone with a friend became a daily hours-long ritual, that truly take the stage. He captures the simultaneous hope and ennui that defined the generation that created grunge and does so with breathtaking clarity and a wonderful sense of nostalgia that befits someone reflecting on past events.
The other element of My Sunshine Away which makes it truly spectacular is Mr. Walsh’s use of Baton Rouge as its own character. His descriptions of the steamy summer heat, the ritual of meals, the sense of neighborhood, as well as the dangers lurking in the woods, and the jungle-like quality of a neighborhood bordered by swamps are lovingly detailed. More importantly, they are so vibrant that readers will find it effortless to imagine the neighborhood and its eclectic inhabitants. While the basic plot could occur anywhere in the world, there are certain elements unique to Baton Rouge which make it impossible for the story to unfold anywhere else.
My Sunshine Away has some of the most gorgeous, poetic sentences one can find in a novel. Mr. Walsh has a way of filling a simple statement with a thought so profound that readers will automatically pause to reflect. Similarly, the trip down memory lane to the late 1980s and early 1990s are poignant but exquisitely detailed to make them fun. All the while, the narrator earns a special spot in a reader’s heart for being so guilt-ridden by his adolescent thoughts and behaviors that it is easy to forgive him all his transgressions, real or imagined. My Sunshine Away is the type of novel that will astound readers with its simple but powerful message and well-crafted delivery.