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.