1883, Aborigines, book review, characterization, child at risk, colonialism, cultural clash, Fiona McFarlane, historical fiction, humor, Krakatoa, landscape, literary fiction, misogyny, racism, South Australia
Review: The Sun Walks Down, by Fiona McFarlane
FSG, 2023. 352 pp. $28
September 1883 witnesses spectacular sunsets in South Australia—and in Fairly, a small town in the outback, every parent’s nightmare has just occurred. Denny Wallace, age six, has gone missing, having walked only a short distance from home and apparently become disoriented during a dust storm. The town, and several strangers, sets out to look for him.
This simple premise prompts a tale more about Fairly and the searchers than it does about Denny, who has relatively little to say. A quiet, reserved child, something of an odd duck, he gets drowned out in this novel amid many loud voices. I think that’s the author’s intention—the searchers and onlookers, most of them, act out of selfish motives, which take center stage. Several characters, when they want something, simply take it, a recurring motif.
But even the unappealing characters are unintentionally funny, even hilarious. That makes an unusual juxtaposition with a child at risk, to say the least; the opening chapters of the book led me to wonder whether I was reading a comedy. Throughout, humor is seldom far away—welcome, but occasionally jarring.
The characters’ thoughts and actions are meant to recount Australia’s story at that time. The lack of rain makes wheat growing an iffy proposition, and sheep and cattle ranching fare little better. The white community looks upon the indigenous peoples whose land they’ve taken as barely human, certainly not their equals, despite lifetime loyalties to individuals. Their suspicions of outsiders, class consciousness (so much for the democratic frontier), and religious and sexual attitudes come to the fore in the hue and cry after Denny.
McFarlane pays minute attention to social interactions. Take The Sun Walks Down as a panoply of characters revealing themselves, often in subtle ways, and you’ll appreciate its essence. In the author’s hands, even the most mundane actions reveal character, as with this passage about Sergeant Foster, a police officer summoned from a larger town to take charge, and Jimmy, an Aborigine tracker he’s employed:
Finally, the sky turned red and the sun went down and here they are, having made tense camp around a fire built large enough to attract attention, in the hope that the boy might see it and seek them out. Jimmy didn’t like the idea of attracting attention, which is, Foster thinks as he smokes by the fire, typical of natives; their every word and act is directed by some dreadful superstition. The local men produced a supply of rum and offered it around, and Foster refused for both himself and Jimmy. The men objected to this refusal on Jimmy’s behalf, grew boisterous, then maudlin, and are now asleep and snoring—one with a courteous squeal, and the other like a church organ. Foster perches, disgruntled, in the front pew.
The novel contains a raft of people, and McFarlane portrays nearly all of them brilliantly. I particularly like Denny’s fifteen-year-old sister, angry at everyone and everything but more capable than many of the adults around her. Foster, the pigheaded sergeant, takes an outsize role in the narrative and an even larger one in his head.
Minna, newlywed at eighteen, has a good heart but resents Denny for getting lost, because that means her constable husband is called away, and she can’t sleep with him. Two artists float through the story, one English, one Swedish; the locals don’t know quite what to make of them.
However, the one character I don’t get is Denny. He has the delusion that nature is a god that speaks to him, occasionally embodied in various adult rescuers, whose presence he flees. Really? Is he psychotic? Doesn’t seem so otherwise, and though his father scares him—an ill-tempered soul, to be sure—his mother’s tender, and four sisters dote on him. I don’t see great trauma; resilience, more like.
I wonder whether Denny has to avoid his rescuers to let the story go in particular directions, which, if true, makes his visions too convenient. In any case, the novel lacks a coherent plot building to a climax, though many scenes provide tension in themselves.
Then again, The Sun Walks Down offers significant commentary about colonial Australia involving racism, the struggle to earn a living, misogyny, social rivalries, and the influence of religion. McFarlane depicts the landscape beautifully, not least the sunsets—which, toward the end, you learn have come about because of the Krakatoa volcanic eruption.
Just as Denny’s a bit odd, perhaps not entirely believable, so too the narrative in which his disappearance forms the center. If you will, read the novel for its characterizations, descriptions of nature, and as a snapshot of Australia at the time, and you’ll be satisfied.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.