Beth Moon is gone, and it may have been suicide. Her two daughters, Jazz and Olivia, are in as much disagreement with how to handle it as are their personalities. Jazz wants to put it all behind her and begin a real-life job. Olivia wants to take her mother’s remaining ashes to the cranberry glades in hopes of finally seeing the will-o-the-wisp her mother dreamt about for the novel she never finished writing. When the almost blind Olivia runs off after her fantasy, Jazz has no option but to be the responsible one and become her reluctant companion on an impossible quest. Together they follow a path where the secrets between them, and those they end up traveling with, are as elusive as the mythical ghost lights of their grandmother’s Slovakian folk tales.
The things that take this story beyond your every-day mundane road-trip/coming of age story are the inclusion of a few unique elements. For instance, there’s mother Beth’s obvious – but unnamed – manic-depression. There’s also her estrangement from her father, and the letters she writes him but never sends, since she believes he’ll only forgive her after she finishes her novel. We also get some other characters when Olivia hops a train to get to the cranberry glades. The two main ones are the tattoo-covered Hobbs, and his dark secret, and the older man Red Grass, who can’t seem to leave Hobbs alone. On the surface, the subplot of Hobbs and Red Grass seems to be more of an extraneous vehicle, put there only to further the tension between Olivia and Jazz. However, with the progress of the action, this ends up being almost a parallel story. Thankfully, this falls just short of overtaking the main plot, despite threatening to do so in some spots.
But the really unique thing about this novel was Walsh’s giving Olivia a condition called Synesthesia. This is where the senses get mixed up and people with the condition can taste, smell and/or see colors in things that don’t have those attributes – like letters, words, days of the week or even sounds and people. For instance, one of the first descriptions of this is “… the way thunder filled the air with a mustard-gold fog”. By including this in the story, Walsh was able to infuse this novel with a level of poetry that would have otherwise felt very pretentious. And since Olivia has mostly blinded herself, these exceptional sensing of the things she encounters are all the more heightened, and become vivid in a way that she actually doesn’t need to see them clearly. It then became believable that Olivia uses her affliction to sense the emotions and intentions behind the words people were saying, since she can’t see their faces or body language to gage these things. In this way, Olivia becomes one of the most fascinatingly special characters I’ve ever experienced.
In fact, I enjoyed Olivia and her poetic observations so much that there were times when I felt that other parts of the story distracted me from her and her amazing world. Yes, I know you can’t have a whole story just based on that, and that there has to be some plot vehicle to use around these passages. I just felt that some of those aspects weren’t as strong as the character of Olivia herself. I also felt that the parts of the story that were told from Jazz’s perspective were slightly weaker than those told from Olivia’s. The only other problem I had with this book was how the character of Hobbs seemed far older than we later find out he is, and I’m not sure Walsh should have made him that young.
But these are mostly minor niggles, and I have to say that on the whole, I really liked this novel, how the plot developed and the fascinating characters portrayed here. Walsh’s talent is truly apparent here, and now I’m interested in reading her debut novel, which sounds equally as creative as having Synesthesia. There’s no doubt in my mind that this book will increase Walsh’s popularity, and I heartily recommend it with a solid four out of five stars.
“The Moon Sisters” by Therese Walsh was published by Crown (Penguin Random House) and released on March 4, 2014. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy of this book via NetGalley.