My Sunshine Away by MO Walsh, review by Shirley Wells
The state song of Louisiana, “You Are My Sunshine,” has a surprisingly sinister last verse for what is usually regarded as a “feel-good” song:
I'll always love you and make you happy
If you will only say the same.
But if you leave me to love another,
You'll regret it all one day.
Not coincidentally, the opening lines of M. O. Walsh's debut novel My Sunshine Away echo that same ominous feel: "There were four suspects in the rape of Lindy Simpson. … I should tell you now that I was one of the suspects. Hear me out. Let me explain."
In the summer of 1989, Lindy Simpson is the “golden girl” of Piney Creek Road, an affluent Baton Rouge neighborhood. A track star, fifteen-year-old Lindy is pursued by most of the boys who know her. Her blonde hair, athletic build, and self-assured confidence are easy to admire, even obsess over—and the fourteen-year-old unnamed protagonist of My Sunshine Away is definitely obsessed with this girl he has known all his life. His affection for her borders on creepiness at times, as his adolescent sexual awakenings dovetail with the ongoing criminal investigation. He spies on Lindy, following her every movement, but his dark secrets, suspicions, and jealousies are tempered with an innocence of first love that keeps his often cringe-worthy behavior from dissolving into outright criminal stalking.
After revealing that he was a suspect in the crime, the narrator—speaking from the perspective of his thirty-year-old self--delves into the lives of other boys and men in his suburban world who are not above suspicion either. Understandably, in the aftermath of such violation, Lindy builds walls around herself with her behavior and appearance, seeking to keep everyone at arm's length since no one can now be trusted. Even the narrator, the neighbor boy whom she has long known has had a crush on her, betrays her by spreading the news of Lindy's rape among all their classmates. His effort to uncover the perpetrator is his attempt at redemption for this betrayal as well as a means of proving his innocence. And in his desire to be part of her world and to cope with his own family's tragedies, the narrator descends into adolescent rebellion.
In chapters that twist and turn, Walsh juxtaposes idyllic childhood memories with grisly crime, abusive neighbors, infidelities, and eroticized adolescent fantasies. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know who to trust. The lyrical quality of Walsh's descriptions of lush landscapes and sweltering Baton Rouge heat is reminiscent of Southern writers such as Pat Conroy, Eudora Welty, or William Faulkner: "Even the fall of night offers no comfort. There are no breezes sweeping off the dark servitudes and marshes, no cooling rains. Instead, the rain that falls here survives only to boil on the pavement, to steam up your glasses, to burden you."
In the aftermath of a brutal crime in a “safe” neighborhood, many lives are irrevocably changed. Twenty years later, the narrator is still grappling with its psychological aftermath, the loss of innocence that clouds memories of the past, forever taking away that sunshine of youth. Walsh's narrative voice, character development, intricate plotting, and evocative setting give My Sunshine Away a rich, suspenseful resonance as the thirty-year-old narrator reflects on the lifelong effects of childhood events and relationships in his journey through the dark side of suburban adolescence.