CW: Domestic violence, violence against women, violence against animals, references to sexual assault
A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh is a tightly plotted thriller that has pervasive feeling of rage coiled around it. Every character in this book feels angry and on edge, on the verge of snapping. This creates a superb tension that carries throughout the novel and, when combined with a perfectly plotted mystery and well-developed characters, results in a fantastic reading experience. This might well be my favorite book of the year.
The first line alone is a hell of a hook:
“She returned home two hundred and seventeen days after burying her husband while his pregnant mistress sobbed so hard she made herself sick.”
The “she” referenced above is Anahera Spencer-Ashby. Anahera grew up in the small New Zealand town of Golden Cove, left for bigger things in London, and is now returning after the death of her philandering husband. Golden Cove holds some bad memories for Anahera; she grew up in poverty with an abusive and alcoholic father. Her mother died after a fall, and Anahera was never sure that fall was entirely accidental. But after the shock of learning her newly deceased husband was unfaithful, Anahera feels compelled to return home.
Anahera is angry about her husband’s infidelity, her father’s abuse, and the fact that her mother kept him around. When she returns to Golden Cove she vacillates between the numbness of grief and a slow-burning rage. She has all the big feelings, and experiencing them with her felt cathartic (more on that in a bit). The landscape around her reflects her tumultuous emotions in the best and most gothic of ways–the ocean here is dangerous and violent, having carved out jagged cliff sides. The forest is dark and deep, easy to get lost in. Storms roll in unpredictably. The setting for this book sets up the mood for the rest of the story perfectly and adds another layer of danger.
Shortly after Anahera’s arrival, a local woman named Miriama Hinewai Tutaia vanishes while jogging. At first people assume she was injured or got lost in the forest–this is an environment that will kill you if you’re not cautious, but when a search party fails to find her the community fears the worst. During Anahera’s teenage years three female hikers also vanished near Golden Cove. Because they weren’t locals, experienced in navigating the bush, and didn’t log their hikes, it took time to notice they were gone and the police assumed they had gotten lost and succumbed to the elements.
Will Gallagher is a police detective recently assigned (read: banished) to Golden Cove and he thinks those cold cases may be connected with Miriama’s disappearance.
Golden Cove’s small size and isolated location help ratchet up the suspense. It’s not a locked-room mystery, but a locked-community mystery. This is a place where an outsider would immediately be noticed, meaning that it is almost certain that if these women were killed, a local is the murderer. There’s a sense of paranoia that emerges as the community realizes one of its own may be a serial killer.
Will and Anahera are both trying to find out what happened to Miriama and the narrative is largely from their points of view. Will sees the residents of Golden Cove through the eyes of an outsider while Anahera views them through the lens of her youth. The narrative balances those two perspectives expertly so that, as a reader, I could experience the cast of characters through both the familiar and more objective viewpoint. Because we see the characters through two different sets of eyes, they become more nuanced and complicated, and I had to question if the information I was getting was because the narrator at the time was biased. Anahera is inherently more trusting of the residents of Golden Cove, but she also has context that Will does not.
The result of all of this is that the characters who make up the town (and who are also the suspects) feel incredibly real. Through Anahera they are connected to the community and given a history, but through Will we are allowed to view them through the more objective eyes of an outsider. It’s a really brilliant technique that allowed me to feel connected to the characters, while at the same time not trusting them.
I don’t want to go into more details regarding the mystery because it unravels so wonderfully, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. As I said earlier, everyone in Golden Cove seems to be carrying some lingering rage, including Will and Anahera, and as a result I felt something vaguely like paranoia as I read this book. No one can be trusted. Even the beautiful landscape of Golden Cove will kill you if you let it. There isn’t a single moment in this book that didn’t push me toward the conclusion of the mystery, and that deft, concise storytelling created a momentum that made for a truly immersive reading experience.
One other element that I loved is that Anahera is allowed to be really, truly angry. She’s suffered abuse at the hands of her father as a child and was profoundly betrayed by her late husband. At no point is it suggested that she set any of her rage aside. In fact she’s allowed to firmly reject the idea of forgiving her dad when he suggests they reconcile:
“Your mother wouldn’t have wanted this,” he said.
“No, you don’t get to bring her up. You lost all rights to her the first time you beat her, the first time you kicked her, the first time you made her less than a person.” She saw him flinch at her unvarnished words, but she wasn’t about to hold back.
He’d never held back his fists or his kicks or his words. “You’re the reason she was living alone in this cabin so far from town. Even if you didn’t push her, you’re the reason she lay at the bottom of a ladder for three long days before I found her.”
A twisting flash on her father’s face, his hand fisting by his side.
“Yes,” she said softly in English, “leopards never do change their spots.”
Because thrillers and romantic suspense contain elements of trauma, especially to women, I frequently run across this narrative where the victim of that trauma must forgive her abuser to heal. Frankly, that’s a load of bullshit. I’m not saying forgiveness isn’t good; everyone heals in their own way, but it’s often contextualized as being a requirement for healing when it’s not. Women are conditioned to forgive and to diminish their anger, when that anger is totally valid.
In this novel Anahera gets to experience all of that rage. She doesn’t have to make peace with anyone. She’s allowed to be profoundly mad about things she has a right to be mad about, and I was so happy to see a female character get to realize that.
I do want to caution fans of Nalini Singh that A Madness of Sunshine is definitely a thriller, and while it does have a romance subplot, I would not classify it as romantic suspense; if the romance was removed, the novel would remain largely unchanged and no element of the mystery hinges on the characters getting together. If you go into this book expecting romantic suspense, you will be disappointed, and the themes of violence (including against children and animals) may not be for everyone.
For me A Madness of Sunshine was the perfect read. It’s got the gothic elements I love, a well-plotted mystery, thoroughly developed characters, and it allows it’s female lead to be really fucking mad. I tried to think of a single thing that this thriller missed, and I couldn’t come up with one. Because of it’s darker themes it won’t be for everyone, but I can’t give it anything less than an A.