Madness of Sunshine a Page-Turner for Winter

A Madness of Sunshine (December 3, 2019)
By Nalini Singh
Berkley/Penguin, 352 pages.

Nalini Singh is well known for her fantasy and paranormal romance novels, but she surprises with A Madness of Sunshine, a crime/mystery offering.

It is set in the fictional hamlet of Golden Cove on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Golden Cove is a suburb of Greymouth–if a place of fewer than 10,000 souls can have ‘burbs. It’s such a small place that Greymouth seems large and Christchurch (381,500) three hours to the east is a veritable metropolis. New Zealand’s West Coast is remote—its southern access cut off by myriad fjords and inlets and access from the east made difficult by the Southern Alps, which form the spine of the South Island. Remote towns are, however, often more socially cohesive than larger places. In Golden Cove, most people know and look out for each other. It’s also a place where Maori–New Zealand’s first human settlers–and Pakeha (whites) enjoy mutual tolerance, even when it’s not genuine affection. Her hometown is a perfect place for native daughter and world-renowned pianist Anahera (Rawiri) Spencer-Ashby to recover from the triple shocks of burnout, her husband’s death, and the discovery of his philandering.

Not even her oldest friend Josie (“Jo”), who runs the local café, can believe that “Ana” has returned after more than a decade of living in London, though she and her resourceful husband Tom do all they can to prepare her mother’s old cabin for Ana’s occupancy. Other than summertime hikers, Golden Cove isn’t the kind of place that outsiders seek. One of the few new residents since Ana last visited is Will Gallagher, who has been the local law enforcement officer for just three months. Mostly, Ana finds that Golden Cove is much as she left it, ­except that her former cohort is now in their 30s and 40s and those she knew as children are now young adults. The latter includes Miriama “Miri” Hinewai Tutaia, who at 21 is both locally beloved and jaw-dropping gorgeous.

Ana is hardly settled in before Miri goes jogging and disappears. Is she lying at the foot of a trailside cliff? Was she swept to sea while running too close to a dangerous tide? Was she abducted? After several pass, Will is forced to investigate Miri’s disappearance as a possible crime. He learns quickly that 15 years earlier three female hikers disappeared near Golden Cove and all that was ever discovered of any of them was a water bottle, a backpack, and a bracelet. It was never clear if any crime actually occurred back then, but Will’s conclusion is distressing: If Miri’s disappearance and those of 15 years ago are linked, it’s highly probable that someone in Golden Cove is a serial killer.   

Another thing about small towns is that there are often skeletons residing in seldom-discussed closets. Miri’s Aunt Matilda, who raised her, has a history of inappropriate boyfriends, one of whom molested Miri when she was young. No one knows his current whereabouts, but Matilda’s current live-in Steve is pretty much low-life scum. Will’s closet friend in town, Nikau Martin, also has a rap sheet from his younger days and he’s very angry that his ex-wife Keira threw him over for Daniel May, a rich boy with lots of toys but little love for the locals. The deeper Will and Ana dig, the more Golden Cove’s luster fades. The Baker family is also rich. Vincent seems beyond reproach, a politician many assume will be a future Prime Minister of New Zealand. Ana, though, picks up on the fact that his spouse, Jemima, seems more of a trophy wife than a love match. More suspicious is Vincent’s younger brother Kyle, a spoiled brat who harbors a grudge that Miri beat him out for a prestigious Christchurch photography internship that she planned to begin in weeks. And what does one wish to make of Shane Hennessey, an Irish ex-pat writer who, for years, has been more prolific at attracting a cult-like harem of barely legal young women than of producing noteworthy poetry or prose. The other wildcard is Dr. Dominic de Souza, Miri’s straight arrow boyfriend. No one can quite figure out what the high-spirited Miri sees in him. Did he find out she was seeing someone else?

Everyone seems to have a shadowy past, including Ana, whose traumatic family life was such that one wonders why she would want to be in the same time zone as the South Island. And there’s Will himself, once cast as a cop hero. What did he do to earn banishment to a backwater like Golden Cove? A Madness of Sunshine is a page-turner mystery. I should say that I figured out the mystery before it was revealed, which generally tells me the story could have been more complex. I also found the title clichéd and histrionic. There is a sense that Ms. Singh ran out of steam toward the end and wrapped up things too quickly and neatly. Still, her novel is in the best everyone-has-scars tradition and I enjoyed remembering my time in the greater Greymouth area. (Okay, I loved nearby Hokitika but Greymouth is forgettable!)

A Madness of Sunshine releases on December 3. That’s early summer in New Zealand. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, A Madness of Sunshine makes for diverting reading as the days grow shorter.

Rob Weir

Note on Maori pronunciation: Maori words often appear daunting, but they are fairly easy to approximate if you remember that Maori seldom contains stressed syllables. The usual rule is to sound out every two letters unless vowels appear adjacent to each other, in which case you elide them. Hokitika is (roughly) Ho-ke-te-ka. Nikau is a bit like Nik-ow.


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