“My Sunshine Away” by M.O. Walsh, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015. $26.95
M.O. Walsh’s debut novel is a wonder.
“My Sunshine Away” has something for everyone. Love, crime, angst, mystery, loss. There’s even a dog. And Baton Rouge. Lots and lots of Baton Rouge.
Our story — yes, ours; you’ll see — starts with a boy, a crush and a flash of cocoon-shattering violence. He is a pubescent ball of hormones, full of all that entails. She is a golden girl in training, until an attack that takes her innocence and leaves no more illusion of middle-class security.
Walsh, you won’t be surprised to learn, is a native of Baton Rouge. He’s watched our strip malls, our avenues, our schools. He’s felt the New Orleans inferiority complex. He watched the post-Katrina transformation. His depiction is flawless.
“We always score well in odd polls,” Walsh writes. “When demographers and social scientists get past the numbers, when they ask more qualitative questions, Baton Rouge inevitably ranks high. We’re off the charts in mysterious categories like ‘enjoys our neighbors,’ ‘had a good weekend,’ and ‘hopes their children will stay close.’ There are several reasons for this. Flowering plants do well here. Things grow like crazy. When it’s hot, it’s really hot and when it rains, it really rains. Our weather is not enigmatic. The food in Baton Rouge is also good and cheap, which is important. There is no place to get a bad sandwich. Open a mediocre restaurant and go under. Open up a new place where there used to be a bad one and pray we forgive you. We don’t draw enough tourists to float a halfhearted kitchen. Thank God.”
Walsh’s novel is a story of growing up. The boy’s, the girl’s, Baton Rouge’s. Ours.
The story moves you along like a log adrift on the Mississippi. An undercurrent pulls you steadily toward the end, which feels as inevitable as the Gulf of Mexico on the horizon.
There are eddies and swirls. Sometimes you’re pulled under and feel like you’re going back up stream. Sometimes you just spin in place.
The brilliance in this book is that it all has its purpose. Each twist, even when it feels like you’re caught in a whirlpool, is purposeful, intentional. With each new line, you feel the weight and work of what you’ve already read and the magnetic pull of the chapters to come. This is a novel that begs to be read in one sitting. It will resist chores, work, spouses and sleep.
It will be worth it.
Even now, after the book is finished, I still feel the story around me. And it’s not a bad feeling.
Follow Beth Colvin on Twitter, @bethcolvinreads.