Sunshine: Not Talking about that Other Vampire Book for Teens

I’ve been falling behind on my reviewing, and as a consequence, my memory begins to drift and the shape of the thing looses focus. Add in the fact I felt kind of bowled over by the torrential first person narrator in this one, and a few weeks after my read, I have this clear, loud image of Sunshine, the character, still ringing in my mind, and a series of afterimages burnt on my eyes, and not such a good grasp on connectives and plot. So.

I don’t think I’ve read an opening as good as the one in Sunshine by Robin McKinley for a long while. It starts with a lot of chat and gossip, laying out this relationship of that, origins, trivia. I’m just snuggling down for a sprawling family drama, and then McKinley his me with it: this is a profoundly alternate future, after a magical world war that decimated much of the world’s population. She never backstories this too much, which I count as a strength, not just because I bore easily when world-building builds the world too worldbuildily, but also because I felt it made sense for the narrator to have a hazy sense of history. The Vietnam War was going on when I was born, and I couldn’t give anything but the sketchiest of timelines for the conflict itself, but I could identify aspects of the culture now that could be traced back to not just the conflict itself, but the secondary social conflicts going on in the US at the time. And that’s the way Sunshine talks about the magical wars, not with a series of dates of skirmishes, but as the starting point for world view and cultural expressions. I mean, this is a little dorky, but I really enjoyed the really concrete ways that Sunshine talked about neighborhood activism, civic boundaries, hell, even building codes.

Then another hit when Sunshine – her real name is Rae, thank heavens – is abducted by ghoulish vampires and left like livestock with another captive vampire who appears to be starving. It’s a hideous, claustrophobic situation, made better by the fact that none of these vamps, not even the captive with whom she comes to an understanding of mutual necessity, is anything but an inhuman monster. I’m not a huge fan of vampires in contemporary fiction, I think because the whole sex/death thing tends to be weighted too far to the sex side of the equation. One time when I was living in the dorms, and my only source of DVDs was a small town public library – gather round, children, and hear how I walked uphill both ways – I checked out the creaky old 1932 film Vampyr. The titular vampire – it’s in German, hence the emo spelling – is a ghoul, an old woman who crawls out of her grave and murders. When they put her down, it’s bloody and messy, not a discrete spray of ash or some cheery fire. You’ve gotta get your hands in it, death. These vamps are more like that ghoulish woman than they are like certain neutered sparklers I can think of. (Oh, hai, I’m ur one Twilight reference in this review, cuz I think they may be obligatory.)

I’m not going to get into the latter plot too much, partially because the mechanics of it are mostly gone to me, but Sunshine spends the rest of the book in a profound state of shock and trauma, babbling out her ordinary existence almost like a ward against death and its embodiments. She’s a talker, Rae, as a narrator, often spending hundreds of words on her job, her baking, the minutia of arranging her bandages. But especially the baking. It was a little frustrating at first for me, and likely it will annoy lots of readers, but eventually I learned to stop worrying and love the baking. For one thing, I just like when characters work at real jobs. And all the politics and hierarchy of a family, within a kitchen, within a restaurant, within a community were a smart way to convey this world to me. But then I also liked the way her voluminous chatter was a sign of her near-death trauma and her working through it through life and it’s mundanity.

I know there’s other stuff I wanted to say, but I can’t think of it now. I’ll just end with some stray thoughts:

I liked that Sunshine has a boyfriend, even though she has this weird, glancingly sexual connection with the vampire. I liked that she and her boyfriend had a relationship full of silence and lacuna, but that it was still real in its own, soundless way. The scene where she and her boyfriend make love in the sunlight was one that stuck with me, partially because it was so fragile and unsaid.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the vampire’s home, which was so cliche and overwrought. It was a clever nod to the vampire conventions, one that Con, the vampire, shrugs about. Yes, well, that’s what created me, and I won’t tear it down, but that’s not what I am.

The magic in this book works so well for me, because it it was humdrum and daily. The abandoned charms were especially nice, shuttering in the glovebox.

The ending? Ah, the ending. No spoilers, but it is open and unfinished, in a way, hand in hand, and out into the darkness. It would be more than nice if McKinley revisited this world, though I do not think she will. I’ll just comfort myself by imagining good things, and that’s a kind of completeness in itself. In a book about adolescence’s end, the leap is as important as the landing.

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