BookBrowse Reviews My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

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My Sunshine Away

by M.O. Walsh

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh X
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2015, 320 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2016, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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A crime committed in suburban Louisiana gets a fresh look in this compelling debut.

One warm, dark summer night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, back in 1989, fifteen-year old Lindy Simpson was raped only a few blocks from her home. Someone waited in the bushes and caused Lindy to fall from her bike. A sock was stuffed in her mouth, a blow delivered to the back of her head. Almost as shocking: we learn early on that the novel's narrator was one of the crime's five suspects.

Now an adult, the unreliable narrator (see 'Beyond the Book' for The Sense Of An Ending) catalogs the events from that fateful summer when he was a lonely fourteen-year-old boy living with his divorced mother in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. He was friends with Lindy – part of a loose group of neighborhood kids who had played together for years – attracted to her, perhaps to an unhealthy degree. When his mother finds a box hidden under his bed containing poems about Lindy, pornographic drawings of Lindy and, "unfortunately" as he puts it, one of Lindy's shoes, missing since the night of her rape, it is clear he knows more about what happened than he has admitted.

My Sunshine Away is remarkable as a portrait of the coming of age of a young man. The narrator, recalling events from a distance of twenty years, manages to find an almost brutal honesty about his past self and his ability – or inability – to understand the relationships around him. For example, despite being in love with Lindy, the narrator unthinkingly tells someone at school about the rape, making her ordeal publicly known.

The complex lives of the narrator's family and their neighbors are delicately explored as he considers the other suspects in Lindy's rape. His father is in a relationship with a girl the same age as the narrator's oldest sister and Dad's attempts to engage with his son are awkward and not always successful. One of the suspects is the cleft-lipped Bo Kern, violent and angry, the first person anyone thinks of after the crime comes to light. External events also play a major role in the narrator's life: the Challenger disaster of 1986 (see 'Beyond the Book)', the arrest of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in 1991, and the death of his sister also in 1991.

As the novel progresses, Walsh accomplishes the tricky act of re-telling scenes from the narrator's youth with great clarity and freshness. Interjections from the narrator's adult self have the potential to jar, awkwardly lifting the reader out of the story of his teenage years, but this is never a problem. Instead, the dual perspective on events becomes a real strength as he increasingly overlays the young man's mistakes and mis-steps with mature reflection. Lindy's past "is unchangeable" but there is a philosophical aspect to the novel and a tenderness expressed towards his younger self and to the other characters that is both moving and thought-provoking.

There are times, however, when Walsh's maintenance of tension by exploring the underlying question of who raped Lindy Simpson, feels heavy-handed. Particularly in the latter stages of the book, the reminders that there is still something to be revealed about that night feel artificial and there is a long section about Hurricane Katrina – an event that occurred long after the central time frame of the novel – that seems out of place in an otherwise well-structured book. There is also a drawn-out tease about who the narrator's wife might be, which again, is a heavy-handed element in this skillfully told story.

For beautiful writing, however, this book is strongly recommended. Walsh quite effectively evokes the heat, the insects and the claustrophobic qualities of suburban life in Baton Rouge. His narrator might believe that "Louisiana gets a bad rap," but he speaks eloquently of both its good and bad points. For an evocation of time and place, as well as for his insight into the mind and heart of this teenage boy, My Sunshine Away deserves to be widely read.

Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2015, and has been updated for the April 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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