The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane: Third time not so lucky

Cover image for The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlaneI wasn’t at all sure about reading Fiona McFarlane’s The Sun Walks Down – it’s an historical novel weighing in at just over 400 pages, two things which usually put me off but I’d enjoyed both The Night Guest and The High Places very much so decided to take the plunge. Set in September 1883, McFarlane’s novel spans a week in which a small white boy is lost in the desert, a week in which the skies over Southern Australia and much of the rest of the world, are stained a lurid red in the wake of the Krakatoa eruption.

Billy is surprised; Mathew rarely refers to his blackness. He seems generally to operate on the principle that the less he acknowledges it, the more likely it is to go away.

Six-year-old Denny Wallace wanders off into a dust storm just as his mother rescues the sheets from the washing line. The rest of the family are at a wedding and at first Mary’s not alarmed but by the time they’re home she’s fretting. Mathew calms her down, convinced the boy will turn up until it’s clear that a search party needs to be organised. The newly married policeman reluctantly leaves his bed and Mathew calls upon the tracking skills of Billy, his farm labourer, once the cricketing protégé of the aristocratic sheep farmer who managed to get himself drowned years ago. This is a hostile, arid territory where Europeans have mistakenly persuaded themselves that they can grow wheat. Over the week that Denny is lost, several search parties will organise and disband, some more disgruntled than others, Billy will find himself asked to cross a line which his beliefs will not permit no matter how much he cares for Denny and Denny will be briefly found by a Swedish painter and his wife who have decided to make Australia their home, before running off into the night.

Where Wooding sees scrub and rock, Billy sees a language and can interpret it

McFarlane uses the disappearance of a white boy to explore themes of colonialism and white supremacy, switching perspectives across a wide range of characters, from Billy who was taken up by the decadent Henry Axam and estranged from his own culture, to the Swedish painter, reliant on his wife’s practicality and tolerance of his philandering, to Denny’s sister, furious with almost everybody and everything, determined to make a future for herself. Each character has their backstory vividly told, building a portrait of this small settlement made prosperous by the construction of the railway. It’s a slow read, sprawling at times, but kept afloat by the quality of McFarlane’s writing with its lightly mocking tone. Recommended, then, but with reservations.

Sceptre: London 9781529389821 416 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

28 thoughts on “The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane: Third time not so lucky”

  1. This is one of the books on the longlist for this year’s Walter Scott Prize and I’ve been trying to decide whether to shell out for a copy. Based on your review I think I’ll wait to see if it makes the shortlist.

  2. Hmm. Between your slightly guarded reservation, and the book’s length, I’m not sure how committed I am to reading this. We’ll see. Her short stories are in one of the other branches of our library. Maybe I’ll start there.

  3. I liked this book more than you did, but don’t mind longer books and found it read quickly. What I especially enjoyed is the way McFarlane effectively uses the different voices to create a portrait of the community itself, and how the land is seen depending on whose eyes are looking at it. I think she does a decent job in handling the difficult subject of how Indigenous people and land was destroyed by Colonial Australia too.

    1. Absolutely agree about her use of different voices to portray a community from different perspectives, particularly well done with Billy, I thought. It was the quality of her writing that kept me going. Glad to hear that you enjoyed it

  4. I do rather like the sound of this one especially in terms of its themes and varied perspectives, and while longer reads aren’t something I’m veering towards lately, just over 400 seems manageable.

      1. Not all that much; at the moment its the ones close to and over 500 that seem a bit much, though just a couple of years ago, I did tackle a 700+ volume (I wonder how).

  5. Interesting review. I am generally intrigued by anything which encompasses Australian Aboriginal culture which your review hints might feature here. I don’t mind a chunkster either, though this sounds like it’s not entirely successful. Shame as the premise does sound pretty interesting.

    1. I think it might be worth giving it a try as a book of that length does have to work very hard to sustain my attention. The layering of the characters’ stories is very effective.

  6. I’m a little tired of examinations of colonialism, which I feel have been dominating historical fiction too much recently – though they do make a change from books set in World War Two! Given the length of this one, I think I might pass.

    1. I know what you mean. This one’s a little different given the Australian setting but if you wanted a much shorter book on the same theme David Malouf’s novella, Remembering Babylon is excellent.

  7. A shame this was a bit of a slow read the premise itself is very interesting. That difficult dynamic between communities and the thene of colonialism appeals to me.

  8. I loved this book a lot – it was one of my favourite reads of 2022.
    But I adore historical fictions, I love sprawling epics and I found the cast of characters fascinating. It was also set in a part of Australia that I know little about, so I enjoyed reading about it (& hope to visit in the next year or so).

    You’ve tempted me to go back and read McFarlane’s earlier books though. At the time I didn’t read Night Guest as the dementia topic was too close to home, but I could probably manage it now.

    1. I can see why this one was absolutely up your street! The writing is superb but as a contemporary fiction reader who’s keen on novellas I suppose it was always going to be a stretch for me. Thanks for the link, and I hope you enjoy The Night Guest if you get to it

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