Shadowing the Sun by Lily Dunn

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Shadowing the Sun by Lily Dunn

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Mongredien
Reviewed by Sue Mongredien
Summary: A gripping, sensuous novel about betrayal, sexuality and the loss of innocence – and how adults' neglect of children can have terrible consequences.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Portobello Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846271182

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Sylvie hasn't seen her father for 13 years, since the summer she spent at his commune near Florence, when she was 12. Now she's about to face him again, and is overwhelmed by memories of that summer.

We flash back to when Sylvie, her brother and their two friends stay at the commune for a month; it is connected to a religious cult and is full of adults trying to 'find' themselves. Caught in the shadowy space between being a girl and a woman, Sylvie is at turns fascinated and repelled by their behaviour; the men seem like predators, circling her and touching her, constantly commenting on her looks, whereas the women flit around them, completely self-absorbed. By contrast, Sylvie's vulnerability and innocence come through very clearly.

Sylvie's father Hari is at the centre of the commune – he is their charismatic leader who we see dispensing wisdom, embarking on new projects to make them rich, and dressing up to entertain them, however the whim takes him. He has cast off his old life (including job, mortgage and family), and enjoys his new hedonistic, carefree way of living. Despite having thrown off all his responsibilities, to Sylvie he is still Dad, and she is desperate to please him and get his attention, even though he lets her down repeatedly, forgetting promises and taking little interest in her. The only time he seems aware of her is when he asks her to be the photographer's model for Alpha Child, a new book he's writing. Tellingly, he claims that the book will help us get in touch with our more raw childlike qualitites, showing that it is only conditioning that separates us from the children that surround us. This adults/children motif is cleverly handled throughout the book and Dunn expertly demonstrates how, inside the commune, the adults behave as children and vice versa. Indeed, towards the end of the novel, where something terrible happens to Sylvie, it's the other children who comfort her. The adults are completely unaware.

The novel switches between past and present and we see, during the present-day chapters, that Sylvie still hasn't got over the events of this particular summer, and that her whole life has been affected ever since. We discover that she has chosen a career as a photographer, as if this is her way of taking control – Now it's me who's behind the camera, no-one has to see me. I'm the one taking the picture now.

Gradually, skilfully, the author brings the novel towards a climax and the full story is revealed. Dunn crafts this whole crescendo brilliantly – adding in clues, hints and red herrings, and creating a fearful, uneasy atmosphere by adding in rumours of 'the Florence Monster' – a serial killer preying on adolescent couples – and focussing on Sylvie's confusion about her awakening sexuality.

With such an intense build-up to the reveal, I was worried that it might be an anti-climax when it finally came – but it wasn't. Dunn has an impressively light touch and handles this scene and those immediately afterwards in a cool, non-judgemental way. Her writing throughout is clear and evocative, the dialogue is sharp and punchy, and the pace never lets up for a minute.

This book really got under my skin – I found it a compelling read, which has stayed with me ever since. The father/daughter relationship is particularly heartbreaking, all the more so for Dunn's dispassionate tone which deliberately leaves so much unsaid.

I would say Shadowing the Sun is a perfect choice for a book group as there's so much to discuss, and I also think it would make an excellent film.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Love Falls by Esther Freud or The Phoenix of Florence by Philip Kazan.

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