Here at Writers’ Hub we have the not unpleasant task each week of sifting through a stack of box-fresh books all vying for our love and attention. We also receive lovely, enthusiastic emails on a daily basis from book marketing people trying to tempt our seasoned palettes with something they consider to be new and tasty. The emails and the books mount up and it’s our job to pick through the glut and identify the crème de la crème—as Miss Jean Brodie would say—to present to you. Sometimes the word on the wire about a certain book precedes it, often a book that sounded great from the promotional blurb turns out to be a flat disappointment—we prefer not to talk about those. Just occasionally a book rises from the pile like a Bird of Paradise—rare, and exotic and something we can’t keep quiet about, and Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer is one of those books.
This is the story of Sunny; wife, daughter and mother, who is born utterly bald during a total eclipse of the sun in the heat and humidity of early ‘80s Burma. Years later, heavily pregnant and apart from her husband, who is en route to the moon to populate a space station with robots, Sunny grapples with the responsibilities of keeping vigil at her dying mother’s bedside, caring for her autistic son, and creating perfect baked goods for the neighbourhood craft fayre. The pressure to maintain a blemish-free public façade whilst caring for her family reaches crisis-point when Sunny is involved in a minor car accident during which one of her many perfectly coifed blonde wigs flies off her head, leaving her bald and stranded in her own neighbourhood. What follows is a hugely evocative and deeply satisfying exploration into what it means to love and to yearn, told in a prose style that is fresh and original, and structured in such a way that the narrative threads of the three main protagonists—Sunny, her mother Emma, and husband Maxon—weave seamlessly in and out of each other through time and even space.
But it is with Sunny that the book properly begins and ends, and it is with her that the reader identifies most acutely. At the beginning of the story she is framed by the things that she lacks—a missing father, a mother adrift between life and death, her own baldness, and the inability of her husband and son to function within what she perceives to be ‘normal’ society. She is lost in her own compulsion to blend in, at sea in a world surrounded by the material things she thinks can somehow keep her afloat. As her emotional state cracks under the strain she imagines she can see fissures in the walls of her suburban mansion, and pictures herself as the destructive fault line. “She could feel, or could she not feel, a tremor in the house. In the crawl space, something was reverberating. Something was coming undone.” However it is not her house but Sunny herself who is about to come undone.
The novel is also the story of Emma, Sunny’s mother and of Maxon, once the raggedy boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and now a Nobel prize-winning scientist on a mission to the moon. Maxon, has a brilliant mathematical mind but an inability to relate to others that indicates he is somewhere on the Autistic spectrum. As a child he is beaten up by his father and older brothers, and neglected by his mother, resorting to a life lived half wild in the woods of Yates County, Pennsylvania. When Emma moves to the edge of the nearest town with seven year old Sunny, she recognizes the raw genius in this strange, dirty boy, but also his inability to relate to other people. Despite misgivings that Maxon and her daughter have an over-intense and possibly unhealthy bond, Emma helps him to translate the world around him through a series of mathematical equations that appear in the book as hand-written illustrations—
These crop up over and over again as Maxon grows up, goes to college, proposes to Sunny and even persuades her that the time is right to have a baby.
Emma too is a complex character. The daughter of austere, god-fearing parents, she is ‘chosen’ by a much older family friend, Bob Butcher, to accompany him to Burma where he pursues his dual interests—Botany and Christianity—with as much selfish energy as he puts into his nocturnal visits to her bed each night. When finally Emma falls pregnant, the birth of her daughter Sunny lifts the haze from her eyes and sharpens her resolve to leave Burma once and for all “Her baby would engage, would fire up like a rocket, and would burn in this world. She would not drift in the murmured prayers of her father. She would not languish in the jungle.” So when Sunny’s father is taken away by the communist authorities and apparently hung, Emma seems to get her wish.
There is a lot going on in this book—and it happens in several different places—some exotic, like Burma, others a little bit American Gothic, like the woods of Pennsylvania. And then there are Maxon’s scenes set in space, and the dreamy suburbs of Virginia where Sunny seems to sleepwalk through her present, relying on drugs to keep her son manageable, and her collection of wigs to keep herself normal. Netzer has a lot of interesting stuff to say about the nature of Autism and how it is perceived by society. She’s also brilliant on the science of Maxon’s super-brain and how it engages with the world around him. She knows her stuff when it comes to space exploration too, and then there’s Burma, missionaries and fundamentalist religion. There is even a fascinating and surprisingly gripping anecdote involving the breaking-in of a particularly stubborn pet pony that illustrates Emma’s tigerish mothering with painful acuteness. And yet, this book never feels over-stuffed in the way some debut novels can. Netzer tells her story without fuss and melodrama—taking her reader only loosely by the hand, slipping here and then into black humour when the narrative requires it, lightly embroidering her prose with the kind of imagery that only serves to enlighten the reader rather than striving to impress. Sunny sees her mother’s hospital room as a kind of secret garden where “The vines that kept her mother alive draped down across her body and out into a tree beside her bed. They lay in coils around the floor, tangled gently with each other, draped with dewy flowers and curling tendrils.” While years earlier, the post-partem Emma had lain in the maternity hospital “… like a long slim knife in the bed. At the top of the knife was her beautiful head, chiseled out of bone. She was as serene as a pool in a cave.”
Lydia Netzer was born in Detroit and educated in the Midwest. Like Sunny she lives in Virginia and is the wife of a math-making husband. Unlike Sunny, she appears to have a very full head of luscious brown hair, two home-schooled children and another life playing guitar in a rock band. To find out more about where the similarities between author and character cross over and merge, I contacted Lydia on behalf of Writers’ Hub to ask her how she writes. I began by asking her what her intentions had been when she set out to write Shine Shine Shine:
When I first started the book I was newly pregnant with my first child, so of course I knew everything about parenting and motherhood! As I went on through the following years, restarting and revising the novel, I had two children, my own mother died, my marriage grew up and I discovered a lot about who I am and what I wanted to say in my book. The themes and ideas I started with are still there, but the messages about love, loss and accepting who you are and who other people are, those developed while I was writing and living through those years of my life.
In fact it took Netzer eleven years from start to finish to complete her manuscript and then even more time editing after it was sold. During this time the structure of the book changed dramatically. “The book started in three chunks—a big Sunny chunk, a big Emma chunk and a big Maxon chunk. I had two storylines to follow, a map, a plan and many organizational sketches that arranged these three big points of view shifts. But when my early readers and agent got into it they asked that these points of view be broken up throughout the novel, with more switching and smaller sections. I called this process ‘braiding’ as I was trying to wind the three points of view together more evenly.”
It’s this braiding—or as we say over here in Blighty—‘plaiting’ of the narrative points of view that makes the book so rewarding. Not only because the story flits between different character’s perspectives, but because information and key plot details can be held back and divulged outside of the story’s timeline—making revelations, when they come, more impactful.
Netzer herself grew up in a fundamentalist, missionary-centric church which gave her insight into that world, however she drew most of her inspiration for the Burmese locations from books and online. I asked her how she had researched the other important locations in the book.
For NASA I was able to visit the Langley Research Center, which is quite near where I live, and the NASA Wallops Flight Facility. I blended these two locations into one fictional site where Maxon would have worked. I visited the Langley Research Centre for the first time about five years ago and entering the Materials Testing Lab immediately found myself thinking “Maxon was here!”
For Sunny’s Suburban dreamscape Netzer drew on her own experiences of being what she calls a “Yankee from a working-class neighborhood trying to fit into the historic district of an old Southern City.” “I think it’s common for new moms to be intimidated and overwhelmed by the mom culture, particularly in this kind of neighbourhood. And yes it’s familiar to me and I went through a similar transition—from being convinced I would never fit into this well-oiled machine to understanding that the machine was greasier and more strange that I’d originally perceived, with odd knobs and clanking bits aplenty.”
In the book, Sunny’s accident and her decision to stop wearing her wigs leads her to re-think her son’s Autism medication, but Netzer is keen to distance herself from any debate about how Autism should be treated, medically. Instead she is more interested in how it is perceived by society, making it clear that her intention was entirely to show an autistic character living, loving and getting on in the world despite their autism. “I wanted the book to be a love story not about an Autistic man and a bald woman, but between two people who were uniquely suited to each other for other reasons, like any couple. Whether you call it Autism or “engineer brain” or something else, there are benefits and challenges to loving someone with this personality. Just like there are benefits and challenges to loving poets. Or lifeguards.”
Netzer’s answers to my questions—which arrive on my laptop via the internet—are both lively and thoughtful and shot through with humour and self-deprecation. When I finally get to what for me is the elephant in the room—how she manages to find time for writing when she is not only a mum of two, but a homeschooling mum of two, she is darkly humorous—
I’m a binge writer. I spend a lot of time mulling and thinking and scheming and collecting snippets. During this time I try to be virtuous about parenting and schooling and paying attention to the children. Then when I can no longer stand it, I take several days at a time to hole up in my office and spew out everything I’ve been brooding about. During this time I tend to duct tape the children into a closet with a bag of Cheetos and a video games console. Not really, but sort of.
Definitely a writer after my own heart.
Luckily for Netzer’s fans her second book does not appear to have required such a lengthy gestation period and is already finished and sold, at least in the US. “It’s another love story with science, sex, death, motherhood and humor,” she tells me, “entirely different from Shine Shine Shine, and also much the same.” Which as far as this reader is concerned, can only be a good thing.
Shine Shine Shine was shortlisted for the LA Times Book Prize for Fiction last year and was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012. Now at last it’s our turn. Launched last week on appropriately the fourth of July, the book is published by Simon and Schuster. Find out more about Shine Shine Shine on Lydia’s website.