Book Review: A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh
By Janet WebbDecember 3, 2019
A Madness of Sunshine is a complicated, compelling story that addresses the pain posed by the title of Thomas Wolfe’s famous book, You Can’t Go Home Again. This pithy description of the plot illustrates why readers will be drawn by the story.
Anahera Rawiri left New Zealand at twenty-one, fleeing small-town poverty and the ghosts of her childhood with no plans to look back. But eight years later, she returns, seeking familiarity as respite from the shattered remains of her new life.
Anahera’s ticket out of Golden Cove (a fictional village), the remote town where she grew up, was her extraordinary musical talent—she is a world-class pianist and performer. It took something earthshattering to make her go home: “She returned home two hundred and seventeen days after burying her husband while his pregnant mistress sobbed so hard she made herself sick.” Edward, her upper-class English husband, betrayed her and left her a widow. She didn’t know until after his massive, out-of-the-blue heart attack that he had a mistress, let alone her fertile status. In less than a year, Anahera leaves her career and way-of-life behind. The contrast between London and Golden Cove defies description.
Edward had liked cities.
He and Anahera had never driven through such a primal and untamed landscape together, the trees born of ancient seeds, and the ferns huge and green and singing a song of homecoming.
Tauti mai, hoki mai.
And this moment, a whisper from the end of her journey, she stood on a jagged cliff looking over the crashing sea below as fog wove through the treetops, a light misty rain falling and dissipating before it ever got to her.
On the road from Golden Cove to her dead mother’s remote cottage, Anahera’s Jeep starts acting up: “It spluttered and hiccuped again before going dead.” Anahera muses that “Fate sure had a sense of humor,” since years earlier an angry young girl “left this town in her dust” and here she was again, “dusty and travel worn.” When a police car pulls up, it surprises her because wasn’t the town too small to warrant a police presence? She sizes up the cop.
Thirty-something, with a hardness to his jaw and grooves carved into his face, as if he’d seen things he couldn’t forget—and they hadn’t been good things.
His hair was dark, his skin that light-brownish tone that made it difficult to tell if he was just tanned, or if he had ancestors on her side of the genetic tree.
Nalini Singh was raised and lives in New Zealand. A Madness of Sunshine doesn’t condescend to readers; it is through inferences and Maori phrases that Anahera’s ethnicity is made obvious. The Golden Cove townspeople are a diverse group and their varied backgrounds and economic status are relevant to Anahera’s departure and return. She reconnects with friends and acquaintances, friends of her mother, childhood companions and is particularly struck by a vibrant sun-lit woman, a gifted photographer who is on her way to Wellington in six weeks due to winning a coveted internship. Miri, short for Miriama, works at Josie’s café: Josie is Anahera’s oldest friend, the only person with whom she has stayed in touch over the years.
A slender long-legged girl, with a face so radiant that it stopped the heart and made Anahera suddenly, viscerally afraid for her, smiled back at Josie from behind the counter.
“Anything for you, Jo,” the girl said, moving to the gleaming coffee-making apparatus with a dancer’s grace. “Kia ora, Ana.”
A few days later Miri’s Aunt Matilda phones Will, worried and distraught. Her niece had gone out for a run before dinner and four hours later, she’s not home. Will immediately sets in motion a methodical search and rescue operation but days later, Miri is still missing.
Will has no idea the memories that Miri’s disappearance has evoked. Eight years earlier, three young female hikers disappeared. Ordinarily, this would be a news story that captured everyone’s imagination for weeks and months. How could three hikers vanish, virtually without a trace? Although there were searches, when they turned up empty, the harsh land surrounding Golden Cove was blamed. That was until a bracelet appeared.
Anahera remembered hearing the news about the two missing women, but lost hikers were pretty standard in the region and she’d been a teenager awash in summer.
But the third missing hiker… that had ended the sunshine.
The gold identity bracelet found in their teenage hangout, the swarm of police, the beach flapping with crime scene tape, it had brought down the hammer on all their childhoods.
The discovery of the gold bracelet broke up the close-knit band of teenagers who did everything together even though even then there were class conflicts and unspoken difficulties at home. Somehow in those halcyon days on the beach, all that was forgotten. Almost all of them left Golden Cove and scattered to the four winds but eight years later, they’re back together. Miri’s effect on the townspeople reminds Anahera of past incidents—competition over scholarships, romantic rivalries, family and spousal abuse—and she wonders if history is repeating itself.
Will, the new guy on the scene, is a guarded, psychologically wounded detective who was exiled to Golden Cove. Why? No one knows, and Will isn’t saying. But he’s a dogged investigator and he senses that past secrets may be connected to Miri’s disappearance. Miri’s Aunt Matilda tells him that although for a time the town feared that a serial murderer/rapist was behind the missing hikers, in time they came to believe that “we don’t really have those kinds of killers here.”
Will had always wondered if that was true, because it was equally possible that New Zealand did have serial killers, but that no bodies had ever been found. If you wanted to disappear bodies in a sparsely populated country covered in dense forests and jagged mountains, deep lakes and rivers fed by glacial melt, the landscape itself would be your coconspirator.
There you have it: a disappearance that ties the past to the present, in subtle and meticulous detail. Singh’s story examines the memories of youth and the fraying and morphing of friendships over time. Understanding how the past impacts the present is sometimes best undertaken by an outsider with fresh eyes, like Will but Anahera is unsparingly honest with herself, and courageously stands up for Miri, following every lead and tapping into her unexamined past in Golden Cove.
Set aside the weekend before starting A Madness of Sunshine because it’s unputdownable. Check out your airline miles too because after you finish, you may want to accept Nalini Singh’s invitation to visit her “distant country.” In her words, “Come visit. It’s lovely and dangerous and beautiful,” much like her book.