The Sun Walks Down: A Novel
- By Fiona McFarlane
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- March 13, 2023
A young boy, like the community around him, is swallowed by the outback.
In August of 1883, the volcanoes of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait erupted with such force that the pressure wave thus generated circled the globe three-and-a-half times. From the ash sent miles into the atmosphere, sunsets worldwide became unnaturally brilliant for more than a year.
Fiona McFarlane’s second novel, The Sun Walks Down, takes place in the outback of South Australia only a month after the violent eruption, and those blood-red, fiery sunsets taunt a Swedish artist who finds himself adrift in the wilderness, seemingly intent on avoiding his creative impulses. It is from the artist, Karl, we learn that “the sun doesn’t set in Swedish, it walks down.”
In a hot, arid climate, the sun plays an outsized role in shaping the ecosystem. Native plants, animals, and people have adapted over millennia to survive under the roasting rays, but outsiders are unprepared — especially those who believe they can reshape the environment to their will.
A dust storm, in which 6-year-old Denny Wallace becomes lost, instigates the action, starting a search that engages the entire surrounding population. The Sun Walks Down involves an ensemble cast; it is the story of a community on the edge of the known world (at least from the European perspective) and on the edge of extinction, whether or not its residents are willing to recognize it.
Denny goes missing while his five sisters are off at Minna Baumann’s wedding in the tiny town of Fairly. On their way home, the girls “drive past other small wheat farms like their father’s: past Britnell’s and Jutt’s, who have committed to at least one more harvest, and past Swinborn’s, who have already given up, and past Nead’s, who are about to.”
Because he has five daughters and young Denny — and an older son, Joe, who has already packed up and left — Matthew Wallace keeps his farm, Undelcarra, running with the help of a single hired hand, Billy Rough, and the endless labor of his partially deaf wife, Mary, who is forever “making beds, cooking meals, feeding animals, brushing hair, mending dresses, sweeping floors, writing letters, washing shirts, wringing sheets, churning butter, dressing children, straining milk, clearing tables, knitting socks, fetching water, hoeing the garden, and darning stockings.” But, as Matthew promised her father, Mary never works in the fields.
The other ongoing concern in the area is Thalassa, the “last big sheep station in the wheat country,” owned by the Axams — mother Joanna and her two grown sons. Together, the Axams, the Baumanns, and the Wallaces form the main triangle of white families within this fraying community.
McFarlane introduces each character in brief snippets that capture their particular essence. For example, “Mrs. Baumann is dressed as usual in her glossy blacks, all complicated pleats and stiff corsets, so that, propped in her wheelchair, she resembles a fussy umbrella.”
In the swirl of folks we meet, it is Cissy who makes the indelible impression. Of the children still at Undelcarra, she is the second eldest, behind Joy and ahead of Ada, Noella, Denny, and Lotte, but the one upon whom everyone depends. At 15, she’s a bundle of rage and impatience and yearning, but also of solid responsibility and common sense. As soon as she understands that Denny was out in the dust storm and hasn’t returned, she starts issuing instructions:
“She doesn’t bother to say, ‘I’m going out to look for him.’ They know she’ll go out to look. Mary has been waiting for Cissy to come and do exactly this: make the gestures that mean she’s preparing herself to go out and find Denny.”
Denny perhaps isn’t much different than many 6-year-olds, but he has an especially active imagination and experiences the world through an unexpected prism. The one who best perceives his inner workings is Billy, who “has noticed Denny’s watchful way of being in the world, his dislike of sunset, the way he speaks to invisible things,” and also that Denny has learned to be brave in the face of his fears. Still, his tilted view of the world prevents his reunion with his family more than once during the weeklong search.
We spend that week with all the various folks who populate Fairly and its environs, learning their secrets, jealousies, dreams, and enduring disappointments. Both Joanna Axam and Wilhelmina Baumann are widows, left behind and let down by their departed husbands, and both are handicapped, now that Joanna has lost the use of one arm in a riding accident; her boys treat her like she’s invisible, though they aren’t necessarily competent to run the station themselves. If she and Wilhelmina represent the old guard of imported European standards, it’s clear those standards are sinking into decrepitude.
Billy, who once worked for the late Henry Axam, finds himself disappointed by these people who consider themselves his betters. Soon after Henry arrived in country, he coached Billy to become a cricket phenom, while also preventing him from becoming a full tribal elder. When Henry dropped dead, it was too soon for Billy to realize athletic stardom and too late for him to become a Vardnapa leader.
Now that he works for Matthew, Billy tolerates Matthew’s nightly wind-down ritual of bare-knuckle fighting. Out searching for Denny, though, when Matthew attempts to force Billy onto sacred ground — ground Billy is not allowed to trespass on — and Billy easily bests him by breaking his nose, Matthew finally realizes that Billy has been allowing him to win these matches, patronizing him all along.
McFarlane’s debut novel, The Night Guest, earned significant acclaim for its tender, insightful depiction of a mind slipping into dementia. There are lovely parallels in The Sun Walks Down; both are stories of isolation and disintegration, though instead of one person, as in Guest, here we have an entire community coming undone. Equally important, McFarlane’s empathy, her delicious facility with language, and her keen insight into human nature, rendered in the smallest brushstrokes that eventually build into a complete picture, are all here, undiminished.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.