My Sunshine Away. M.O. Walsh. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015. 26.95. Come by and pick up a copy or call us to order!
This week marked the highly anticipated release of the debut novel by M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away, praised by Southern literary royalty the likes of Kathryn Stockett and Anne Rice. Walsh’s prose moves the story along at a pace that finds the perfect compromise between meditative and page-turner. Set in Baton Rouge in the early 90’s, the book is narrated by an unnamed man recalling his childhood, beginning with the year his neighbor, the 15-year-old Lindy Simpson, was raped on their usually quiet Southern street. The rape is still unsolved, and the narrator confesses to us early on that he is a suspect. This is, in some ways, a deeply unsettling story: we are immersed in the consciousness of a narrator who may or may not be a rapist, and whose lovesick actions toward Lindy are often unconscionable.
My Sunshine Away seems to plunge us into a normal childhood in the South, on Piney Creek Road, where neighborhood kids spent their days “tearing around in go-karts, coloring chalk figures on [their] driveways, or chasing snakes down into storm gutters.” But a dark current runs beneath the narrative. This is a street shaken to its core by the sexual assault of a teenage girl, Lindy Simpson. The insularity of the story is emphasized by the fact that the rape takes place right outside Lindy’s house, across the street from the narrator’s own home. Piney Creek is quietly, constantly under siege from the kinds of tragedies that are inescapable on any street, as well as the kinds of tragedies that make us question what is normal in human nature. The rape is just the publicly tangible manifestation of a world in which adult men take pictures of their teenage neighbors and drug their children, where the narrator spies on Lindy from an oak tree and draws her head onto pornographic images.
The darkness of the novel is tempered by the fact that it is also a kind of love story. My favorite thing about this book is Walsh’s ability to so fully crystallize what it means to be young and in love. Speaking of Lindy, our narrator says, “There’s this girl. And when I look at her, I don’t know what to do.” And on technology: “There were no cell phones. No private text messages. It was simply one on one conversation and, if it was any good at all, you had to whisper.” This is the kind of evocative power found on every page. Even if you didn’t grow up in the South, you will find remnants of your own high school experiences in the Spanish moss and mosquitoes of Piney Creek Road. And you will find yourself nostalgic for summer in Baton Rouge, even if you have never been: “And so the soul of this place lives in the parties that grow here, not just Mardi Gras, no, but rather the kind that start with a simple phone call to a neighbor, a friend. And after the heat is discussed and your troubles shared you say man it’d be nice to see you, your kids, your smile. And from this grows a spread several tables long, covered in newspaper, with long rows of crawfish spilled steaming from aluminum pots…” One can’t help but feel that South Louisiana is more than a backdrop to this story: it is almost a living character, loved by the narrator with the same passion he feels for Lindy.
This story is as much about Lindy as it is about the narrator. Lindy is objectified by almost everyone she encounters, reminding the reader of what it is like to grow up as a young girl in a world that becomes increasingly unsafe the more she begins to look like a woman. Lindy is never, however, objectified by the author. She is a real girl, experiencing a trauma that is not understood by the narrator, but that is deeply understood by the author. Walsh never gives us the narrator’s name, reminding us that the real protagonist is, in a way, Lindy. However, the namelessness of the narrator also fits him into the time-honored tradition of the every man, and this is what makes the book truly chilling. Does every man really enact such violence on the women around him? The narrator concludes, in the final pages of the book, what we have wanted him to recognize all along: “That’s why I am so lucky to have Julie around now, and to have had my mother and Rachel around for so long, to make me realize that life is not always about me and the unloading of my conscience. The story of Lindy’s rape, for instance. It is about Lindy. And that is all.” As he grows from a boy into a man, the narrator realizes that there is a world of women around him, women with secrets, women whose parallel existence in the world is shockingly different from his own. He realizes, for instance, that Lindy was probably not the only girl to be raped that year in Baton Rouge. That women bear scars that they don’t tell men about.
It is this nuanced understanding of what it means to be a man that makes My Sunshine Away so special. It is unsettling to read what presents itself as a mystery about a rape, but the solution to the mystery is, appropriately, unsatisfying in a way that a true crime novel’s ending never is. There is nothing glamorous, nothing outrageous about rape. We aren’t reading to find out who did it. Men commit these atrocities against women every day. This isn’t a mystery so much as it is the story of a man who comes to recognize his own complicity in a culture that is dangerous to women. It is a story about becoming a better man, and recognizing that some narratives will always remain secret.