Sunray Alice - by Jeremy Hepler
I don’t know the correct sub-genre classification for horror that covers the main topic that is addressed in Sunray Alice but taken at its base level, it is a story that I found fascinating ever since I encountered it in one of the first books I read. To clarify that statement, I have to go a little back into my own history, so bear with me, you’ll see where I’m going soon.
When I was around 8 years old, through being unlucky, I had head trauma resulting in almost total amnesia. I couldn’t remember my relationships with anyone, and couldn’t remember anything before waking up in the hospital, but I could read – I could write, talk, and understand. One of the first books in my "new" life I remember reading was at age 8, and a proper book (not “run, dog, run”) entitled “Stig of the Dump”, a penguin or puffin classic, I believe, which was on the bookcase somewhere on the ward. It dealt with a theme that I continue to find magical even today, one that is repeated in books such as “The Book Thief”, where people hide someone else – and often, the person they hide is different from what society believes them to be, or expects them to be.
Sunray Alice takes that theme, and like its predecessors, adds in a coming-of-age story, with a strong female lead. It nods its head to King’s Green Mile with a supernatural element, but in that acknowledgment (The green mile is referenced in the novel) it won my support – comparisons were bound to be made, to have them mentioned in the book – I thought – was a touch of class. Hepler is well-read enough to know his influences, and that nod of the head rewards the readers that made those connections. Nicely done, Jeremy.
Instead of a caveman, there is a Nazi, but he is not as he appears to be. That character’s dilemma and his empathy and abilities are the thrust of the novel, and it is given the calming perspective of time - the story is told from Alice’s perspective as an older woman, revealing her secrets to a younger audience, and from her younger perspective, as she lived it in the past.
And that, I think, is where the magic happens.
The whole thing is given a deeper aura of credibility due to that separation of time. A person’s own perspective weighs a lot more heavily with the benefit of hindsight, and those occasional comments, those inserted hints as to how the narrative is about to change, add to the tension and make the reader know that this is not a story with a happy ending – this was always going to be a tragedy. Our modern-day sensibilities would have it no other way.
Hepler’s characters are well-rounded and likable. The love interest in the novel is deserved – we can only approve of Alice’s choice, and approve of her love interest’s character. Her relationship with her mother is similarly well observed – flawed, strained, but strained out of love. A parent trying to be a parent, even when suffering grief.
Hepler steers clear of supernatural explanations, and relies on the magic to carry us, which it does, to the crescendo of the final chapters, by which time we are all so spellbound we are eating out of his hand and already feeling desolate, in the knowledge that it cannot continue. The ending is bittersweet and leaves us all in that happy place of being witness to a story told by a master, at the top of his game.
This gets a well-deserved 5 out of 5 ⭐ ‘s, and my thanks for transporting me away from reality for a woefully short time. I shall be expanding my Hepler Library in the days to come to try and prolong that magic. 🤜🤛
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