Why do some memories, both good and bad, stay with us for years, and ultimately become defining beacons in our childhoods? And how much bearing do our adolescent selves have on the adults we turn out to be? M.O. Walsh’s debut novel, My Sunshine Away, ponders these questions, and explores how one event can forever alter the relationships among family members and friends, both for better and for worse.
My Sunshine Away is set in a well-to-do suburban Baton Rouge neighborhood – the kind of place where neighbors look out for one another, and children around the same age automatically share histories simply by virtue of living near each other. In the summer of 1989, fifteen-year-old track star Lindy Simpson is attacked and brutally raped by an unknown assailant. From the neighborhood, four suspects emerge: the shady brother of one of Lindy’s childhood friends; the child psychiatrist down the street; his troubled adopted son…and our narrator, a teenage boy who has grown up with Lindy and harbored a painful crush on her for years.
From that fateful night, Walsh’s story flashes backward and forward in time – we find out exactly how and why our narrator fell in love with Lindy Simpson, and find out how their not-quite-friendship evolved in the years following her rape – and ends with our narrator in the present day. We learn who committed the awful crime against Lindy, of course, and we also learn the truth about how our narrator was involved. The book’s ending, particularly the last three pages or so, was satisfying to me in a way that few book-endings are anymore. At a time when so many books seem to close out with either cliffhangers or Shocking Twists, or in ways that just don’t carry the same weight as the story that precedes them, a resolution like this one felt like a gift. In fact, the book’s final sentence left me with a lump in my throat AND made me smile. And that’s a lovely, all-too-rare feeling.
Recently, a friend who had also read the book expressed surprise that I took so much warmth from the pages of Walsh’s book: “I mean, it begins with a girl being raped!” True, My Sunshine Away doesn’t shy away from some of life’s darker possibilities; Lindy’s rape is, both literally and figuratively, only the beginning of the story. At various times, Walsh’s characters deal with an untimely death, crippling grief, alienation, and pervasive guilt. But the intimacy of Walsh’s writing, and the compassion with which he treats all of his characters, turns what could have been a garden-variety mystery or teen-angst story into something deeper, richer and more hopeful.
Nostalgia has something to do with this. The narrator lives out his high school years against the backdrop of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and anyone even slightly older or younger than our fictional hero will recognize the familiar stuff (combat boots! Guns N’ Roses songs!) of life around that time. So, too, does the book’s Louisiana setting contribute much to the story’s atmosphere. Had My Sunshine Away been set in, say, New England, it all would have felt quite different and somehow less personal (Walsh himself is from Baton Rouge; it’s easy to imagine him taking the common writerly advice to “write what you know!” to heart).
In the end, it’s this impression – this sense that the story sprung from the well of Walsh’s own experience, and could never have been written by anyone else – that will remain with me long after I’ve forgotten the finer points of the plot. My Sunshine Away is a mystery, a family drama, a hazy snapshot of childhood, a redemption story, and above all, a love letter from a writer whose voice deserves to be heard. I hope you read it sometime, and enjoy it as much as I did.