Preface: These reflections began as an answer to a QUORA question: ‘What books have you read that make you love life more?’
One of the things that great novels have in common is that their authors are poignant and utterly ruthless in bearing their souls. Through their characters they confess their sins and fears, helping us absolve our own. They let us feel the burning shame of acts no one could be proud of, and they let us soar with their successes, in love and in life. Sprinkled throughout these gems of perfected literature are insights so deep they make you stop breathing for a moment. They transcend the petty grievances and ennui of everyday life so beautifully that you want to freeze-frame the moment, let the words burn through from mind to soul leaving an indelible mark.
Hundreds of such books have, as you say, made me ‘love life more.’ Isabel Allende, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, Barbara Kingsolver, Haruki Murakami, John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut have all blessed me with those transcendent moments more than once, as have dozens of other authors. The most recent is an author I had never heard of before.
I felt blessed to have stumbled upon My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh. Find a copy. It will astonish you. One of the freeze-frame moments comes when the main character, a man narrating the story, is visiting his mother in the hospital. When she hears the voice of Robert Stack on tiny TV up the corner of her room, she says, “Oh, I used to have such a crush on him.” Her son immediately flashes back to one of his favorite teen memories, when he and his mother had watched Unsolved Mysteries religiously every week, drawn in by Stack’s every word while they munched on pizza sitting side-by-side on the couch. He marvels at the phenomena of human memory.
Walsh writes: “As soon as we look at the actor, as soon as we recognize him, memory will gladly rebuild for us the flickering den, place again the taste of pizza on our tongues, and even fill the hospital room with the smell of acetone that clung to our mother’s hair those decades ago. It will then perform other invisible miracles as well, allowing us to travel back in time to once again look at the women sitting on the couch next to us watching TV, where she is now a much different person than the one we saw as a teenager. She is much more complicated, as with memory we are able to consider her life as a whole. We are able to consider both of our lives together. The sacrifices she made for us. The pain we went through. The trouble we caused her. The way she raised us. Yes yes yes. It is love that we feel here. This is the purpose of memory.”
As is often the case with transcendent novels, My Sunshine Away is not for the faint of heart. How can a story that starts with the rape of a teenage girl be uplifting? Nothing can truly transcend before it grapples with its opposite, the awful soul-crushing reality that life dispenses. We can only appreciate the light after we have faced the darkness and found reason to turn our back to it.