Reviewed by Harriet
We’ve reviewed two of Laura Lippman’s novels in Shiny, here and here. One was a police procedural and the other a standalone – Lippman’s output is fairly evenly divided between the two. She’s known as a crime writer, but if that’s not your genre of choice, don’t dismiss her novels, which rise far above its normal parameters. Lippman is a superb novelist, intelligent and stylish, ‘one of the finest writers in America’ as Mark Billingham is quoted as saying on the cover of this, her latest novel – note that he doesn’t say ‘crime writers’. And Sunburn is arguably her finest so far. Set in the 1990s, it reaches back to the 1930s noir thrillers of James McCain (think The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity) to provide an enthralling mystery that reveals itself slowly and inexorably, keeping the reader guessing right up to the end.
The novel is set in Belleville, Delaware, ‘a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening’ – or any other time, for that matter. Advertising itself with vain hope as one of the best small towns in America, it’s forty miles inland, so people simply pass through it on the way to the beach. Small town America is wonderfully evoked here. The town’s only attraction, a minor one at that, is the ‘bar-slash-restaurant’, the High-Ho. Two strangers have rolled in at more or less the same time: attractive, confident Adam Bosk, who soon gets taken on as the chef, and Polly Costello, a gorgeous redhead who talks the owner into letting her start as a waitress and barmaid. It’s inevitable that these two will get together, but it takes time: Polly is cautious, sometimes flirty, other times cool. But one thing is certain: both are keeping secrets. Adam is in possession of some of Polly’s, including but not limited to the fact that she has just walked out on her husband and four-year-old daughter while on a beach holiday, taking half their savings with her. But even though he knows quite a lot about her chequered past, there are more revelations to come. Initially, though, Polly’s past is almost as much a mystery to the reader as she is to Adam, though we get to see quite a lot of her internal life:
If she wrote an advice book for women, it would basically say Tell men what they want to hear. What they think they want to hear. But it wouldn’t do anyone any good, because most women aren’t her. It’s not her looks or her body. Her looks are only slightly above average, her body didn’t come into its own till she had all those long empty days to exercise. Besides, she would never invest so heavily in a commodity that won’t last forever. It’s how she is on the inside that makes her different from other women. She fixes her gaze on her goal and never loses sight of it.
But what is Polly’s goal? It will be a long time before we, or Adam, find out. And when we do, it casts Polly in a different light, while not necessarily exonerating her from the wreckage she has left in her wake.
It’s impossible to write more about the plot of this excellent novel without giving too much away and spoiling the immense pleasure you will have if you read it. But that being said, this is a book that not only tolerates re-reading, it’s one that actually benefits from it, as little throwaway phrases that passed you by on the first read come to take on an important significance. It’s admirably constructed, moving chapter by chapter between different points of view: principally Polly’s and Adam’s, but those of other characters from time to time also, who sometimes reveal facts that are essential pieces of the jigsaw.
So the mystery of Polly and her motivations is a crucial element of the plot. But even when we finally learn the story of her past, she remains a wholly morally ambiguous character – it’s impossible not to like or at least admire her, even at her worst, and even her worst is impelled by a drive which many would consider admirable. Adam really has no defences against her, as he struggles to complete his assignment in the face of his overwhelming sexual obsession with her. Highly recommended.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Laura Lippman, Sunburn (Faber & Faber, 2018). 978-0571335664, 304pp., paperback original.
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