Anahera returns to the West Coast town she escaped from eight years ago. Her successful life in London has come crashing down, and she is hoping for some peace and quiet in Golden Cove, despite some bitter memories of the place. But what she finds is a morass of misogyny, abuse and murder.
Recently widowed, recently devastated by finding out she didn’t really know her husband at all, Anahera arrives home knowing “no one could be trusted.” And she has no intention of trusting, or getting near, anyone. She finds her friend Josie, now running the local café, but doesn’t take up her offer of accommodation, preferring to be by herself in a remote cabin. The remote cabin that was the scene of the trauma that caused her to flee Golden Cove in the first place. Before heading out to the cabin, she briefly meets Miriama, a young woman who is working in the café while waiting to take up a photography internship in Wellington.
Another person Anahera meets as she arrives is Will, the local cop. Will has been scarred, emotionally and physically, by the disastrous outcome of a case in Christchurch and has been in Golden Cove for three months. He is a caring and careful cop and he keeps his violent temper under control. He likes his new post, with a huge geographical spread but few people. His work is mainly routine: generally keeping the peace, checking in on the elderly. That is until Miriama goes missing, and he has to co-ordinate the search. And when people start linking her disappearance with those of three tourists some years earlier, he realises he may end up investigating a serial murder.
Will asks Anahera to help him by picking up information from the locals, who still regard him as a bit of an outsider. Almost everyone in the town falls under suspicion, and when it appears Anahera fits the serial killer’s victim profile, tension builds even further. Through the novel, Anahera and Will slowly reveal their own demons and ghosts and start to move towards an acceptance of the past. There is a romance arc to the novel that is classic and works well. The turbulent weather and treacherous geology of the area successfully adds an almost Gothic feel to the tale: “The crashing thunder of the ocean was his only accompaniment as he walked, the rhythm a steady beat that was a dark pulse.”
Golden Cove gets its name from the hope of the founders that they will find gold in the area, they didn’t, and the bitterness of failure still runs through the population. Most of the locals are either waiting to get out, haven’t got the money to leave, have returned due to disappointment, or are rich enough that they can live behind locked gates and enjoy the views. Anahera’s friend Josie is one of the few exceptions who seem content with their lot. For most of the novel the plotting is tight, and the reader is constantly guessing and changing their minds, about the crimes, the motives, the suspects. There are a few lapses, we lose Josie towards the end, and can an internationally successful classical pianist really be one who is self-taught on the local church piano?
What I found really disturbing about The madness of sunshine is its no-punches-held descriptions of a totally misogynist society. The women are all victims, either due to their looks, their desire for security or their ignorance of their plight. Women who are in abusive relationships almost choose their abusers, or they can’t ask for help as it would make them look weak. The men are all predators, from on the one extreme, psychotic personalities, to on the other, just generally good blokes down at the pub who will banter: “Go grab Miss Tierney of the big blue eyes and big tits and heat up the sheets.” Miriama’s beauty is endlessly described, she glows like the sunshine, she is the object of everyone’s desire. Ironically her beauty not only makes her a target, it helps in her search, for the mainstream media are only interested in beautiful women. Miriama’s skill as a photographer is briefly described, suggesting insights into character that she lacks in her relationships.
The objectification and abuse of women is pervasive, intergenerational and occurs when women are known to the abuser, as well as when they are complete strangers. Rather than considering changing society it is the women who should learn survival skills: “She had no intention of getting into a vehicle with an unknown man.” There is an argument for portraying societal misogyny as a way of highlighting the problem, and one for role-modelling more positive roles for women. For me, The madness of sunshine just misses out on both counts. When you do find the motives for the crimes, they are so extreme, you long for more supporting backstory – otherwise the crimes are pointless examples of the discarding of women, and “that was a thing too many men had done to too many women across time.”
“No one was born without the capacity for joy in the soul. Life leached it out of them, drop by drop”, Anahera thinks at one point. She and Will stand as examples of this, and of the possibility of redemption and the regaining of joy, but I finished the book worried sick about the women left in Golden Cove!