Bitter Sun by Beth Lewis

Posted On 4 July 2018

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bitterSet during the heatwave of 1971 Bitter Sun is a coming of age story that takes a sharp look at the rotten core of a small midwestern town.  Having read The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis I was excited to pick this one up and in terms of writing prowess the author delivers.  This isn’t my go to type of read, lacking the elements of fantasy or sci fi that I tend to steer towards but there is a hint of magical realism towards the conclusion and the slow build of tension, the dizzy summer heat and the escalating sense of menace and small town claustrophobia feel so real that you can practically cut the atmosphere in the story with a knife.  I can’t deny that I read elements of this with a lump in my throat from trying to hold back the emotion.

Narrated by John the story takes place over a three year period.  John and his sister Jenny spend all their free time with their friends Rudy and Gloria at a secret den they’ve built away from the prying eyes of town.  Their summer days sound almost idyllic until they discover a dead body in the lake they usually spend hours swimming in, a young woman with no form of identification, shot and unceremoniously dumped.  As though the whole experience isn’t harrowing enough Jenny becomes obsessed over the victim and relentless in her determination that the four should investigate, a need that becomes more insistent when the authorities seem to have little motivation in uncovering the murderer or even finding the identify of the young woman in question.  It’s as though Jenny herself has a desperate need – one that is powered by her own miserable home life and the very real threat that she herself seems to face.

Set against a backdrop of a rural town in decline the story doesn’t shy away from the nasty.  Abuse, negligence bullying and depravity are the order of the day.  John and Jenny’s mother is a bitter drunk who takes out her frustration with life on Jenny – to such an extent that she is oftentimes afraid to go home.  Rudy’s home life is equally beleaguered with a violent father and brother who the majority of the town are afraid to even look in the general direction of and Gloria, whilst her rich parents and glamorous home seem to be the envy of many, spends a lot of time alone and is all but being raised by ‘the help’.  Added to this is the fact that the town is in decline.  The Vietnam war draft adds a layer of fear to the residents who already mostly live in abject poverty, struggling to find work and turning to seek solace in the bottom of a bottle.  The opening chapters don’t paint a pretty picture to be honest and yet as the story unfolds you begin to realise that the corruption that infects the town runs much deeper.

It’s difficult to say too much more about Bitter Sun without giving away spoilers.  This is a desperate and heartbreaking story.  The prose is absolutely stunning and in fact holds you quite mesmerised in it’s spell until the conclusion.  It’s not a cheery story and I’m not going to pretend otherwise.  There are horrors taking place in this town and what really adds an extra layer of disbelief is the way that people in the town simply look the other way.  The lies and deceit are deeply entrenched in fear.  If nobody sees the problem then it doesn’t need to be addressed which gives licence to a whole bunch of vile characters to do whatever they want to feed their own desires.  Draw the curtains and look away.

To be honest, it’s not new territory or ground breaking in many respects but it is so well written that the beauty of the prose keeps you hooked to the end.  And, I can say that my fear for the main characters was so very real that I could almost taste it.  I felt the horror that they felt as their worlds began to fall apart and their innocent illusions were ripped apart.  Particularly John.  He was so determined and yet so naive.  He seemed to blindly run into situations and you just wanted to stop him – and yet, in spite of his actions, whatever eventually happened had a feeling of inevitability.  I realise I’m probably sounding a little mysterious but it really is difficult to elaborate further.

The low down is this is a story of four young people and their rather bleak journey into adulthood.  There are rude awakenings and heartache aplenty and it won’t be for everyone although there’s also a glimmer of hope.  I try, as a rule, to shy away from comparisons but for me this author has a feel of DuMaurier or Tartt – a truly gifted writer with a way with words that compel you to read her stories even if, at first, they might not seem to be your usual bread and butter.  A harsh tale, beautifully told.

I received a copy through Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.



16 Responses to “Bitter Sun by Beth Lewis”

  1. Captain's Quarters

    I have the wolf road on me list. I think I will read that one first to see if I like the writing style. Though ye don’t make this one sound interesting even if I tend to have sci-fi or fantasy in most of me stories. Nice review.
    x The Captain

    • @lynnsbooks

      I loved the Wolf Road – this is quite different and with no fantasy elements. I love the writing but the story itself might be difficult for some.
      Lynn 😀

  2. Tammy

    I’m glad you reviewed this, I’ve been waiting to read a review. This is definitely something I would love, I think.

    • @lynnsbooks

      It doesn’t pull any punches, it’s one of those books that you can feel the sweltering heat and the tensions rise.
      Lynn 😀

  3. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    It sounds very different from The Wolf Road, to be honest, but I’m still very interested in reading more of her work. I hope this one comes out stateside soon!

    • @lynnsbooks

      It is very different indeed. No fantasy elements to this one. A bleak and uncompromising read but well written and that holds you rapt. Although not for everyone.
      Lynn 😀

  4. Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky

    You had me at “coming of age story.” 😀 I would read all and every coming of age book if I could, and this sounds absolutely fantastic. I can just feel the claustrophobic atmosphere from your description and the comparison to Donna Tartt makes me even more excited to pick this up!

    • @lynnsbooks

      I loved the writing. It’s a slow burn, you can feel the tension, the heat, the way everyone is cranking up to something horrible. Bleak, harsh, compelling.
      Lynn 😀

  5. maddalena@spaceandsorcery

    The way this book affected you comes across very clearly from your review, enough that I would not think twice about leaving my own preferred path of speculative fiction to read this novel, based on your recommendation alone.
    Thank you so much for sharing this! 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      It’s a very strong story, well written, harsh and a bit shocking. Definitely a good read although not for everyone and not in the realms of fantasy so not my usual read.
      Lynn 😀

  6. waytoofantasy

    Oh, I feel like I may like this one. I do love Du Maurier.

    • @lynnsbooks

      Well, just to be clear, and this is why I so rarely make comparisons, this isn’t like a story that DuMaurier would write in terms of content (this is really quite harsh) but, the writing is beautiful and her style really held me glued – which is how I felt about DuMaurier and Tartt.
      Lynn 😀

  7. jessicabookworm

    Lynn, I fear this would be bleak and dark for me, however your description of friends in a small town during a sultry summer reminds me of Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury.

    • @lynnsbooks

      Ahh, interesting. I still haven’t read that one even though I did pick up a copy and I love the author. Yes, this is definitely a bleak story – very bleak. The writing is excellent but I think it won’t be for everyone.
      Lynn 😀

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