Books editor Catherine Woulfe on the much-anticipated first thriller by New Zealander and New York Times bestseller, Nalini Singh.
I finished A Madness of Sunshine five days ago. At first I was furious, then disappointed and deeply sad. It’s still eating me up more than any Christmas-release “compulsive thriller” should.
The cultural moment no doubt has something to do with it. Grace Millane is dead, and Amber-Rose Rush is dead. So many women are dead. And while much of the reporting has been respectful and illuminating (if necessarily constrained by the courts) our appetite for the stories of these dead women has been gross. It’s an understandable fascination, but it feels slobbery and weird and wrong.
Singh, already a superstar of paranormal romance, knows all about our appetites.
In A Madness of Sunshine, by my count her 45th novel, women are killed because they look a certain way – “slim, dark-haired, dark-eyed, vibrant with life” – and because they dare to go walking alone. Action centres around the disappearance of a golden girl, “a beauty”, called Miriama. Gobble, gobble.
The setup could have been redeemed by, say, a cast that would pass the Olivia Benson sniff-test, or a victim with real depth, or a clever female protagonist saving the day – or saving herself, at least.
Unfortunately we get none of those things.
But let’s quickly detour a bit, to what’s by far the most successful aspect of the book: setting. We’re in a small fictional town on the West Coast of the South Island. There’s lots of reference to deep dark bush and relentless gossip, a wild sea. The community is refreshingly diverse and works together under pressure.
Singh is very good at brushing past peripheral characters and dropping small, telling insights. She sketches in a child in two quick lines; a slightly-off mechanic takes a paragraph. Mrs Keith, Golden Cove stalwart, keeps her garden neat and watches the story play out from her rocking chair on the porch, “her girth overflowing the white wood of it and her face a pale moon surrounded by a halo of teased black”.
The search and rescue scenes are particularly well-drawn, to the point it seems like Singh has maybe sat in on some real-life efforts. Everyone goes out properly prepared for the weather and the terrain. They communicate well; there are maps and grids and whiteboards. A chopper. Old-timers who chip in with hard-earned advice.
In a typically pragmatic moment, Will, the cop running the show, says:
“If I’ve given any of you an area you’re unfamiliar with, speak up now. It’s no good to Miriama if you’re stumbling around.” And two pairs of searchers do wind up swapping up tasks.
That’s … kind of it for the positivity.
I find myself having to write around some of the plot points that really pissed me off, so as to avoid spoilers. Let’s just say they involve “sinning” and violent, biblical punishment.
In a wider sense there’s a problem with how women in this book are depicted. They stay with violent partners, they put their kids in danger, they’re betrayed, they shack up with creeps again and again. Their reasons for doing so, and of course they have good ones, are not properly explored. Instead, the women – seriously it’s nearly all of them – are almost always presented as if they’re simply unable to make smart choices. “That’s how pathetic I am,” one woman confesses. “That’s how much I love him.”
To really bang it home, the cop, who plays the voice of reason in the book – and who should understand that abused women often have very good reasons for staying – never pushes past his own trite and insulting rationale.
“Love could make people do stupid things,” Will muses, thinking about the domestic violence case that traumatised him. “Sometimes, that stupidity led to death. And to screams … that haunted him each time he closed his eyes. As long as he lived, he wouldn’t understand why a loving mother would pick up the phone and invite a monster to visit … So no, Will didn’t trust that Miriama had stayed smart.”
While the women of Golden Cove are inclined to be stupid, the men are inclined to be violent.
But A Madness doesn’t talk about choices when it talks about the men, rather they’re overcome by an irresistible bitterness, an animal urge, a monstrous anger. There’s a pervading idea that men are helpless, or just about, in the face of primal instinct. It’s good if they’re strong enough to resist – but good luck with that. Will the cop has a history of beating people up when he’s mad. And here he is considering the missing woman: “Will was grateful he’d never felt a tug toward Miriama; she was too young, too shiny, too innocent.”
Miriama is comprehensively fetishised. Every man in town is besotted with her, we’re told, “bees around a honeypot”. Her adoptive mother’s partner paws through her undie drawer; various other men are more subtle about it, and the women go on about her kindness and big dreams, but the lasting impression is of a bunch of dudes standing around slavering. Again and again we’re reminded that she is young – a girl who’s just become a woman, vom – slender, sunkissed, glowy, glowy, glowy. She has long hair. She brings people cake. Long legs. Honestly, on and on about the long legs. Moves like a dancer. The odd mention of her skill as a photographer, her perceptiveness, has no chance of countering the collective male gaze. Or the odious moral overtones.
The protagonist, if that’s what you call a person who follows a man around while he tells her what to do, is female too. And another missed chance. She’s called Anahera. She’s come home to Golden Cove after the death of her husband and some other traumas she’ll reveal in due time. We keep getting told that she’s smart and proud of it – “Anahera did not want her headstone to read “Death by Stupidity”” – but oh my god, wait til you get to the end, when she makes an absolutely implausibly stupid decision.
To be fair, maybe she just really wanted some space. In the opening scene her car breaks down on the drive from the airport and she decides to walk – Golden Cove is only 20 minutes away, and the whole murder thing hasn’t started up yet – and you’re like, okay cool, of course, do it. There’s something powerful about a woman just strolling back into her hometown.
But nope, because here comes Will: “A man. 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.”
My fingers twitched for a red pen.
Next paragraph: “She couldn’t see his eyes behind the opaque darkness of his sunglasses, but she imagined they’d be as hard as his jaw.”
Lose “the opaque”. Lose “darkness” and “of”. Lose the bit that prompts you to think about poking the damaged hot cop in the eyeball. Although he bloody deserves it.
I’m still thinking about A Madness all the time, and talking to people about it, and second-guessing my own reaction. But I’ve read the book twice now and I keep circling back to the same conclusion: that my anger is justified. That women and our stories and hurts deserve better. The closest I can get to describing the whole experience is that I feel like I’ve just been gaslit by a book.
A Madness of Sunshine, by Nalini Singh (Hachette New Zealand, $34.99) is available at Unity Books.