Just 14 pages into reading My Sunshine Away, M.O. Walsh’s debut novel about a boy growing up in Baton Rouge, La., I had a thought that I scribbled in the margin: “So To Kill.”
The narrator, after all, was a bit like Harper Lee’s Scout, a person now all grown up and looking back at childhood. And both books begin with the memory of a tragic moment. To Kill a Mockingbird, of course, starts with Scout’s brother’s badly broken elbow. Walsh’s book begins with the rape of a teenage girl next door.
There are some striking similarities to the stories: Both are firmly rooted in the South. Both have creepy neighbors. Both, it turns out, even have a scary dog on the loose.
My Sunshine Away is also simply, like Lee’s novel, a great work of fiction. It’s a page-turning thriller with a heartbreaking crime and an intriguing cast of suspects.
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But it’s also a love story to Louisiana, with passages that force the reader to pause and contemplate the “wrong-ended telescoping” that gives the state a bad reputation. It’s a coming-of-age story, too, about a boy and his mom and dad, a boy and his crush, a boy and his complicated feelings. It’s a book about love and forgiveness and family and hope.
And maybe most of all, it’s a book about memory, about taking the time to look back at childhood and see events not as we experienced them as kids but from the broader, less self-absorbed viewpoint we’ve hopefully gained as adults.
Part of the magical storytelling in this book is Walsh’s ability to at once re-create the intense, confusing feelings of childhood — being an 11-year-old and watching the Challenger explode, hearing a word for the first time and recognizing that it carries a lot of power but having no clue what it means — while leading the reader along with provocative foreshadowing that shows that maybe we shouldn’t trust the feelings of that child.
His main character is at once wonderfully flawed and terribly sympathetic. He plays with remote-control cars. His father has left his mom for the teenager who worked at the golf and tennis club. He climbs up trees to spy on Lindy, the track star next door. He is a suspect in her rape.
In a statement by Walsh released by Putnam, the author, talking about the origins of this novel, says, “The facts of my youth seem to belie my cheerful memory of it.” He, like his narrator, grew up in Baton Rouge, had parents who divorced, had a sister who died unexpectedly and had strange neighbors.
He also says, “I believe people are losing their wonder. … I mean that literally, when a topic comes up in conversation, if there is any disagreement, people are too quick to pull out their smartphones and get the ‘real’ answer. They don’t spend much time, anymore, wondering about the past or the world around them.”
As an adult, Walsh began wondering about his own memory of a story about a girl on his block who had been raped. “Could that have been true? I wondered.” Then he started to write.
Publishers Weekly interviewed Walsh last May when My Sunshine Away was selected as one of a handful of Buzz Books at the BookExpo America annual convention in New York. In the interview, he reveals that the novel took him seven years to write, and although he was director of the MFA writing program at the University of New Orleans and had published many short stories, when it came to writing full-length fiction, he says he had “absolutely no idea what I was doing.”
He also said that he didn’t write with the purpose of exploring themes, but “just hoped that people would read from one page to the next without leaving me.”
If my experience with the book is any indication of how other readers might react, he needn’t worry: Turning the pages will be a necessary treat. He absolutely figured out what he was doing. And while you may indeed leave the author when you get to the last page, Walsh might not leave you — his haunting, lyrical novel will compel you to look back on your own life’s mysteries, your own childhood fog.
If you’re like me, you’ll do some thinking: Why don’t I remember having one meaningful conversation with the boy next door when his dad died so suddenly? Did my best friend and I really spy on our neighbors on summer nights when we were bored? Did I have any idea what was really happening in any of my neighbors’ lives?
In short, you’ll think about your own childhood differently. You’ll look back and wonder.
My Sunshine Away
by M.O. Walsh
Audiobook: Penguin Audio, $40; narrated by actor Kirby Heyborne.
Meet the author
M.O. Walsh will speak about My Sunshine Away on Thursday at an event with the Friends of the SMU Libraries in the Umphrey Lee Center, 3300 Dyer St., on the SMU campus in Dallas. A free lecture and book signing begin at noon. An author’s reception and light lunch start at 11 a.m.; the reception, which includes a signed book, is $30, and an RSVP is required by Monday. For more information and to RSVP: https://sites.smu.edu/libraries/friends.