The boy met a god by the hollow tree. ‘Go away,’ said the boy, and the god, formless, passes on in the direction of the red hill.
I believe I have just read my favourite and best book of 2022.
Although I am a little reluctant to tell you how much I adored The Sun Walks Down, in case you do not love it as much as I do! I want to gush over the gorgeous prose and magnificent descriptions, the vibrant storytelling and the surprising array of characters who all come alive but I have been caught out by such things before.
Many a time have I read a glowing review of a book and it’s writing style, that then completely failed to capture me when I eventually picked it up. It makes me wary about doing the same to you. Obviously mood can play a part in this, but also we all have different tastes. Different styles and different forms move us and appeal to us at different times. That is how it should be. Except The Sun Walks Down was a book I savoured from the very first sentence to the very last, and I would love for everyone to experience what I have just experienced.
The first proviso is that this is a book for fans of historical fiction.
However Fiona McFarlane is a writer conscious of modern sensibililties. She doesn’t rewrite history or make her characters say or do things that would have been out of step with the real 1883, for the situations that occur, the interactions and conversations are clearly designed to accurately reflect the times. Yet they also allow the modern reader to reassess where we are now in regard to colonialism and the impact on First Nations, the environment, art, the stories we tell and how mythologies evolve.
The second proviso is the premise of the story – it is a lost child story.
Some readers may think this will be too sad or too traumatic, and some might think that this is a story exhausted by constant use. Australian colonial history is certainly full of such tales. We have stories, ballads and songs regaling us and warning us to be careful, to know where our children are at all times, to be prepared. Getting lost in the bush or the outback was something to be feared and guarded against at all costs.
McFarlane’s story may appear to be a tradional telling of this tale, except the first sentence gives you a clue that more is at play here. The spirit world is close and place is pivotal to the drama.
The setting of the the story is the Ikara-Flinders Ranges in South Australia. The time September 1883. Pastoral leases for this area had been granted from 1851 bringing in sheep. Farming started around the 1870’s. Initially it met with success as it coincided with a few years of good rainfall, but as the weather pattern returned to the more normal, drier pattern, many of the homesteads were abandoned.
In the corner of the parlour there’s space for failure to crouch, open-mouthed, larger or smaller depending on the day, the weather and the harvest.
The Ikara-Flinders Ranges were not just new lands to be explored and taken for the purpose of farming; they were full of sacred sites with age-old stories, myths and legends. Sites protected and surrounded by ancient laws and cultural practice. Places to respect and nurture. A land full of meaning and purpose if you knew where and how to look.
The date is important too.
1883 was the year that Krakatoa erupted. The first eruptions began in March continuing through to August before a series of four huge explosions on the 27th August almost destroyed the island. The explosion was heard in Perth, WA. It caused a volcanic winter which darkened the sky around the world for many years. It also produced spectacular sunsets, a Bishop’s Ring around the sun by day, and a volcanic purple light at twilight. British artist William Ascroft made thousands of colour sketches of the red sunsets following the eruption.
One of McFarlane’s many characters is a Swedish artist visiting the Australian desert for inspiration. He is stunned by the colours that dance in front of his eyes every night. He is unaware of their cause, and believes that somehow he was meant to be here at this time, in this place to capture the beauty and majesty of the Australian skies. In fact, the title of the book comes from the translation of one of the many Swedish words for sunset. The weather and land themselves become a part of the story. The sun, one of the many gods or spirits that inhabit this world.
Also inhabiting this story was a cast of thousands. This could have become confusing, yet curiously it was never a problem. Keeping track of everyone was easy to do, rather like living in a small village, where everyone knows everyone else. It felt natural to see this story from so many points of view. One of the characters was deaf, there were newlyweds, a bossy, moody teenage daughter, a policeman who was also a writer of popular fiction, a German prostitute, an Afghan camel driver, an Indigenous cricketer, a minister who had lost his faith and two artists, just to name a few.
I should also explain why it took so long to read a book I loved so much.
Initially, The Sun Walks Down began it’s reading journey with me as my lunch time book at work. I would devour a handful of pages with my lunch most days, which is a slow but steady way to make progress through a book. After every lunchbreak, I would return to work raving about what I had just read – the lush storytelling, the wonderfully drawn characters, the majesty of the Ikara-Flinders Ranges and McFarlane’s perceptive, sensitive approach to colonial history. So much so, that our events coordinator pitched to host an event with McFarlane in October.
As my holiday in September approached though, I realised I was desperate to just finish. I couldn’t stand the thought of waiting a whole week to read the next installment. And I couldn’t stand doling it out in such small doses anymore. I needed to read the last third in one great big greedy gulp!
My final proviso is do not be put off by this over-written, over-blown response.
I have been trying to write something that would do this book justice for a month. Isn’t it funny how the books you love the most are the ones that are often the hardest to write about. Or is that just me? This post has had so many reincarnations and edits that even the WordPress counter has lost track. It is time to be done with it. The post that is, not the book, for as Michelle de Kretser says on the back cover, “I lived in this wise, majestic novel for days, and never wanted it to end.”
Favourite Character: Denny, the little boy lost. Although the Ikara-Flinders Ranges come in for a special mention too.
Favourite Quote: This one is from page four. I could have pulled one from almost every page.
The European settlers, who came to the ranges in the 1840’s, sometimes refer to them as hills, but this is too reasonable a word for the serrated ridges and startling inclines of this dusty, dry country. These are ancient mountains – so old that they’ve collapsed in on themselves, as stars do.
At this point, I usually include the epigraphs. McFarlane has chosen three. I will save them for next time I read this book though, and base my next response on how the three epigraphs inform the story.
Title: The Sun Walks Down
Author: Fiona McFarlane
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Published: 5 October 2022
Format: Trade Papaerback
Dates Read: 19 July 2022 - 13 September 2022
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.