Creating unlikeable but sympathetic characters is a skill that I hugely appreciate as a reader because I find it genuinely difficult to finish a book populated by them. So many novels fall flat on their faces for me because they don’t quite walk that fine line between relatable yet difficult, and downright irritating. Not so Laura Lippman’s Sunburn which creates a compelling cast and narrative in spite of the essential selfishness of its protagonists.
Sunburn asks one important question: what kind of woman walks out on her family? One with nothing to lose and everything to hide as it turns out. One like Polly Costello. Or Pauline Hansen. Or whoever she decides to be when she next needs to move on with her life. Gregg picked up ‘Pauline’ in a bar three years ago because she had a restless, wildcat energy. But now she’s vanished – at least from the life that he and their daughter Jani will live. But he can follow her. To a new town, a new job and to a new ‘friend’, Adam Bosk, who thinks he has her figured out. But who is ‘Polly’ really and how many times has she disappeared before? And who are all the shadowy figures so interested in her whereabouts?
As you can probably tell, this is a novel that plays with ideas with identity, examining the pasts we create for ourselves, the futures we envisage and the baggage that gets thrown out the window on our way through life. Everyone in this book is hiding their real selves, creating new lives and obscuring unpleasant truths in an effort to create more promising futures for themselves. It should make them all hideously unpleasant so it’s a testament to Laura Lippman’s writing that they’re so compelling and relatable instead.
Polly herself is the mainstay of the novel. Complex and difficult, she’s an unforgettable heroine who really drives the book forwards. Friendly one minute, cool the next; soft and open but with sharp edges that will cut anyone who gets too close, Polly feels like a living, breathing human being. She’s difficult, selfish and shallow in many ways but also loyal, intelligent and caring in others. And, as you uncover more about her troubled past, she becomes a character made by her experiences. She’s definitely the centre of the book, the sun around which all the other characters revolve and the human mystery that kept me turning the pages.
And everyone, I mean everyone, has their own agenda in this novel. From the private detective who definitely shouldn’t be getting involved with his mark; to the insurance broker trying to cover up his partnership with a corrupt cop, everyone is out for themselves and what they can get. Even the waitress at the dead-end diner that Polly rolls into is playing the hand she’s been dealt as best she can – even if that means resorting to blackmail. Selfish, shallow, self-absorbed – Lippman’s characters are all of these things but they’re also deeply, fatally human. Whether it’s loneliness, poverty, desperation or love, everyone in Sunburn has a driving force and a motivation that feels real. It’s a real accomplishment and it really sets the novel apart from many of the other noirish thrillers that I’ve read.
The plot itself is a meander more than a race. At just under 300 pages long, Sunburn isn’t a substantial read in terms of length but it feels weighty and there’s a deliberate steadiness in the pacing, a slow burn of tension that into a wildfire of actions and consequences towards the end. It’s not quite as page-turnery as other thrillers I’ve read but the pace suits the novel – this is a thriller that’s in tune with the steady, compelling narratives of classic noir and, as such, it rewards patient reading.
Filled with psychological complexity and narrative tension, Sunburn is an homage to the classic psychological noir of James M Cain but with dashes of Gillian Flynn and S J Watson, and is a worthy edition to any suspense thriller fans TBR pile.
Sunburn by Laura Lippman is published by Faber & Faber and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.