Reviewed by Michael Pitts
In his debut novel, M.O. Walsh offers an exceptional mixture of adolescent exploration, intrigue, and violence. Weaving between the years of childhood, high school, and adulthood, the text is an exemplary addition to the Bildungsroman tradition with its central focus being the development of a young boy. This narrator must endure a terrible but fascinating rite of passage which keeps the reader intrigued through every chapter. A story of suspense, remorse, and atonement, My Sunshine Away will please the reader of Southern fiction, mystery, and Young Adult literature.
Following the rape of a young girl in a suburban section of Baton Rouge, members of the local community work to repair their social bonds and damaged sense of security. This cataclysmic event marks the passage from childhood to adolescence for the children of the area and, more specifically, the young narrator who has long cultivated a strong attraction towards the victim. This infatuation appears often to be mildly inappropriate, causing complications in the plot and further illustrating the complex psychological and sexual changes of adolescence. These growing pains continue to shape the relationships between the characters as they age and experience changing identities.
A strong voyeuristic quality is found in the novel that highlights the inconsistencies between gender experiences during development. While a single perpetrator attacks the young girl, Lindy Simpson, the text succeeds in exposing several other “intellectual perpetrators” who have coveted her in their minds and sought ownership of her via differing methods. Photography and the disembodiment of Lindy are central in this process. While others attempt to own her through language or actions, the narrator does so by cutting her pictures and forming a collage illustrating his desire to reform her into something he may possess. These actions are expertly contrasted with those of others in the neighborhood, some whose actions are similarly innocent while others hint at a violent possibility. This juxtaposition of innocence and insidious intent acts as a driving force behind the plot.
A product of the realist style, the text does not romanticize the southern landscape in which it is placed. Set in homogenous suburban America, the story is equipped to comment both on the true originality of Baton Rouge as well as those qualities it shares with most of American society. By foregoing the idealization of the south for a true account of daily life in this time and place, the author creates a story all the more horrifying due to its credibility. Connecting and contrasting this setting with New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in one section, it demonstrates the uniqueness of the southern landscape while refusing to caricaturize the placement of the novel. Walsh also demonstrates a prowess for description and imagery and uses this talent to paint scenes of both placidity and turmoil. Weeks before the crime is committed, the narrator sits in his front lawn and thinks about Lindy as he completes his chores. Using shreds of bark from a nearby tree, he pieces together a form of her, carefully selecting those shavings that best replicate her. Passages throughout the novel weave together and communicate the depth and nature of the characters with a similar subtle grace.
The work is ultimately successful due to the nature of its characters and content. Each character is endowed with a great depth of personality and backstory. By moving across years and, at times, settings, Walsh is able to develop these stage players into fluid, dynamic personalities with credible experiences and reactions. The content covers the many facets of adolescent experience while also connecting these to young adulthood. Although the young narrator does not understand the nature of each mature issue in play around him, his account allows the reader access to a story with greater breadth than perhaps the narrator would realize. The text is ambitious in both its content and characters and reveals an intriguing story about lost innocence, development, and understanding. Readers of youth fiction and mystery will thoroughly enjoy this debut novel from a promising southern voice.
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