While a child’s disappearance can shock a community into coming together, it’s also the kind of event that can reveal fissures among residents, heighten conflicts within families and prompt reevaluations of relationships. Fiona McFarlane explores these possibilities and more in her leisurely novel The Sun Walks Down.
In 1883, the potential tragedy of a 6-year-old boy’s disappearance strikes the town of Fairly in “the arid middle of South Australia.” This Outback region is known for dust storms, hilly ranges that were “laid down, long ago and slowly, in layers of rock,” and a sun so red and fierce that the boy in question fears “the gods must be angry.” The boy is Denny Wallace. His mother, Mary, deaf since age 22, sends him out with a sack to gather bark and twigs while his five sisters attend a wedding and his father, Mathew, plants parsnips. But Denny gets lost in a dust storm and doesn’t return home.
The bulk of McFarlane’s novel focuses on the efforts of the townspeople to help the Wallaces look for their son and the stories of the family members left behind as the search continues. This includes Minna Baumann and Mounted Constable Robert Manning, whose wedding was attended by Denny’s sisters; 15-year-old Cissy Wallace, Denny’s oldest sister, who doesn’t understand why the other women won’t join the search party and who secretly falls in love with Robert; Bess and Karl Rapp, Swedish artists fascinated by the reds in “this disastrous South Australian sky”; and Mr. Daniels, a courtly vicar prone to fainting spells.
The Sun Walks Down should be read not for narrative action but rather for the minutely observed relationships among its characters, as Denny’s disappearance is less of a mystery than it is a plot device that allows McFarlane to explore her themes. She does this beautifully, such as when she depicts the relations between white people and Australia’s native Aboriginal people, the wayward behavior that can come from an excess of ambition, and the question of who does and does not constitute a British subject.
“Don’t you like people to be happy?” Denny’s sister Joy asks Cissy. “Happiness won’t find Denny,” Cissy replies. As McFarlane makes clear in this fine work, the quest for contentment can be as elusive as a 6-year-old lost in a dust storm.