I adored the The Wolf Road, the debut novel from Beth Lewis, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into her second novel, Bitter Sun.
The Dry meets Stand by Me and True Detective in this stunningly written tale of the darkness at the heart of a small mid-Western town and the four kids who uncover it.
In the heatwave summer of 1971, four kids find a body by a lake and set out to solve a murder. But they dig too deep and ask too many questions.
Larson is a town reeling in the wake of the Vietnam draft, where the unrelenting heat ruins the harvest, and the people teeter on the edge of ruin.
As tension and paranoia run rife, rumours become fact, violence becomes reflex. The unrest allows the dark elements of the close-knit farming community to rise and take control.
And John, Jenny, Gloria and Rudy are about to discover that sometimes secrets are best left uncovered…
Bitter Sun is a coming of age story set the early seventies in Larson – a small town in the American Midwest – and I thought that Lewis evoked this setting brilliantly, both from the perspective of language and speech, but also highlighting the economic trials facing the population and the impact of the Vietnam War and the drafting of the town’s young men. Against this backdrop, we meet Johnny, his sister, Jenny, and their friends, Gloria and Rudy. These four are inseparable, and at the ages of 12-13 as they are when the novel opens, they aren’t fully aware of what is going on outside of their little bubble. Times are hard, but it’s been such a constant in their lives that they don’t know any different, and to them it seems normal.
The summer of 1971 sees things change for these four when they discover a woman’s body in the river. Whilst the police investigate, they aren’t satisfied, and decide to solve the murder themselves. I think that at that age, this seems like something of an adventure, and they embark upon their quest with a huge amount of determination, and perhaps a little glee. They quickly run into trouble, however, and the mission that they’ve set themselves will take them until the summer of 1973 to get to the bottom of. Bitter Sun is a novel that is as much about the setting and the characters as it is about the mystery at its heart, and I loved the gradual reveal as the children grow into young adults and begin to understand what they are facing.
Bitter Sun is told from John’s perspective, and he is such a sweet boy – utterly determined to look after those around him if he can, and he wants nothing more than to take over the family farm as he grows older. He doesn’t see himself as particularly smart or handsome, but he is determined to do the best he can for those around him – particularly Rudy (who is subjected to beatings by his father and brother), and his sister, who is on a collision course with their mother, their constant fighting escalating as Jenny grows older and into womanhood. John comes across as being naïve, but in the sweetest possible way, and he doesn’t always see the bad in people. This does mean that he gets taken advantage of, and I hated the way he was treated at times, despite having fully expected it.
There are some novels where you read the opening paragraph of a novel and just have to get comfy for whatever ride you’re about to be taken on, knowing that you’re in for a good time regardless of what follows. Bitter Sun was one such novel for me. Highly recommended.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐