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To me it is a sure sign that I have read a book that I put it down hungry to know more and believing in the characters of the novel. This book was like that, so a pleasant discovery whilst trying to find out a little more about this author was that there is another page to add to the ending of this book at http://www.torey-hayden.com, the author's website, though I could have read more even after the 460 pages of the book.
Torey Hayden has written a number of books based on her work as a psychologist and special needs teacher, of which I only have one "Somebody Else's Kids", in a french translation (long story), but which I also enjoyed.
"The Sunflower Forest" is one of three novels that she has written and is an interesting read from the start. It tells the story of 17 year old Lesley and is set mainly in Kansas. Far from being a novel where the heroine grapples with more familiar American coming of age rites such as the Prom and graduation, Lesley is set to find out the most extraordinary, in the true sense of the word, things about her mother, Mara, and this will take her on an emotional and physical journey as the past is unravelled.
Mara, her mother's, own teenage years were spent in Hungary and Germany. I won't say too much as finding out what happened to her is part of the interest of this novel, but her past experience has shaped the rest of her life and, ultimately her relationship with Lesley and her other daughter Megan who is nine.
The novel explores a few interesting themes, apart from the mother/daughter relationship I found myself thinking about that between siblings. Also the author manages to convey the experience of living with someone with mental illness. No doubt her professional experience helped her paint this, but it is done so with compassion and I would imagine, (not having experienced mental illness close up), realism. One in four of us will apparently experience some sort of mental health problem in our lives so despite often being undiscussed it is an issue that does merit examination by such an experienced in the field author.
Hayden manages to portray Mara as a very real and loved character. We first realise there is something different about her when, in the first few pages of the book, there is mention of her "spells", when she withdraws from life. Having grown up with this Lesley says she thought everyone's mother was like it. What I liked about Hayden's potrayl is that she managed to make the character rather than the illness the main point of interest. There is no name given to her illness, though we see her go through highs and lows and some sort of breakdown my layman's diagnosis would be that she is bi-polar, but actually what she is suffering from is secondary to discovering what her life has been thus far and reflecting on her relationship with her daughters and her husband "O'Malley", who appears to have been her knight in shining armour at the end of the war.
Mara, for me, does seem a loveable and exciting character throughout much of the book, even through some rather difficult discoveries about her, though the conclusion you come to about her at the end is no simple one. You do feel angry and indignant for Lesley who is being kept from teenage normality, specifically High School and from spending time with her first boyfriend Paul, but there are moments of complete love from Mara to her children. I found these easy to relate to, as a mother, and they made Mara all the more real to me. Lesley's boyfriend Paul is blinded by Mara and finds her an interesting character too and fails to understand Lesley's frustrations or the bigger picture, in what is probably a realistic drawing of a typical adolescent too.
There is some focus on the relationship between Mara and her husband, but more so at the end of the book you are left wondering about whether Lesley can love her mother for all that she has been, and I did find that the extra page on the website I mentionned previously did help me with that issue. I was not sure by the end how much Mara was a product of her experiences or whether whatever her journey she would have suffered from the mental illness that she did, but I think that was probably the point.
The book is a rollercoaster ride of emotions for all concerned, including the reader. It had me gripped, moved and sometimes even repelled, but at all times totally believing in the characters and caring what happened to them. At times it is not an easy read at all, especially in terms of some of the subject matter, but still it is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. I think it did show that Hayden can go successfully beyond writing about the real people she knows as in the previous book of hers I had read, and can write a convincing novel.
I was suprised to find that this book was first published in 1984 as it still seems very fresh, it was republished in 2008 and it was this edition that I read.
You can probably guess that I would thoroughly recommend this book which has already made its way on to my over full "keepers" bookshelf, I am sure that I will read it again, and should you read it I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did. Currently the book is available at Amazon for £4.26.
Paperback: 464 pages Publisher: Harper (1 Dec 2008) Language English ISBN-10: 0007260946 ISBN-13: 978-0007260942