The Sun Road

( 1 )

Overview

Readers of Charming Billy and Crow Lake will identify the landscape of quiet pain and years-held secrets that informs the lives our narrator, Beth Standing, and her mother, Lizzie, a woman who seems to have never been happy. As a child, Beth escaped across the busy London road to her best friend's house, finding solace in the energetic Frederick family: the perfect antidote to the stifling atmosphere of her own home. There, the question of why Beth's family was "different" never...
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Overview

Readers of Charming Billy and Crow Lake will identify the landscape of quiet pain and years-held secrets that informs the lives our narrator, Beth Standing, and her mother, Lizzie, a woman who seems to have never been happy. As a child, Beth escaped across the busy London road to her best friend's house, finding solace in the energetic Frederick family: the perfect antidote to the stifling atmosphere of her own home. There, the question of why Beth's family was "different" never really needed an answer.

But as an adult embarking upon an affair with this childhood friend, Beth finds herself confronting memories she had long repressed as she faces the possible consequences of giving in to passion, and of losing one's future to the irrevocable choices of the past.

The Sun Road marks a promising debut for Hannah MacDonald, a novel perfect for discussing, for sharing, and for probing the questions of love, loss, and finally, hope.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Quietly moving debut about a mother and daughter whose long-hidden secrets threaten those they love. In gratifyingly unself-conscious prose, British newcomer Macdonald (editorial director at Random House UK) begins her story as two small boys and their father go swimming at a public pool: As they leave, a gas leak causes a huge fire in which all three perish. Their mother, Lizzie, presumably visiting her own mother in another town, is actually with Roger Standing, her lover. Lizzie is also pregnant with Roger's child, Beth, and after the tragedy she and Roger marry and move to London. Lizzie is determined that Beth not know the story, but, unable to hide her grief and guilt, she takes out her resentment on Beth, who consequently feels less close to Lizzie than to Roger-and is also drawn to a family on the same street, Jacob and Ruth Fredericks and their three sons. Dan, the middle one, is the same age as Beth, and the two are close friends, though Beth likes all the Fredericks, whose home seems warmer and calmer than her own. When Ruth suddenly leaves Jacob, though, and moves to Shropshire with her sons, Beth and Dan lose touch. Some years later, Beth, having become a TV editor, sees Dan again at his father's 55th birthday party. Dan, now an artist, wants to date her, but she's reluctant: she also has a secret in her past. A modest tale, resonant with insight and empathy. Agency: Carlisle & Co.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385337397
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/30/2004
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,455,467
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Hannah MacDonald lives in London, England, where she is an Editorial Director at Random House UK. She is currently at work on her next novel.?
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Read an Excerpt

1

MARTIN & PAUL

Leicester 1969 They are two small boys walking down the street. One would come up to your waist and the other up to your thighs. In slow, tired moments the littler of the two might reach and place a hand on your leg for support, as if you were a tree. The heat and light pressure of his small palm would work through your trousers and you would probably reach down to ruffle a head, your hand covering from the front to the back of their scalp, like some everyday priest. The two of them feel warm and wriggly—their faces are still pudgy—and on your lap, in your arms, they squirm like animals flattening grass or treading down earth, making a cave out of your embrace.

When undressed they are smooth and grabbable, their flesh moulded around soft developing bones. Sometimes their mother thinks their limbs could be snapped, that Paul’s thin wrist could easily be bended to a wrong angle and splintered inside, like a bird’s wing.

Martin is older and a little taller. He walks with purpose while Paul still seems to be dawdling in childhood, paddling his hands through the air of a stirring, chaotic world.

They are only little, and dressed in brightly coloured clothes. Martin chattering, on their way to the swimming pool, Paul stumble-walking, with one hand stretched out ahead, as ever, high and far to an adult. It’s a wonder one arm isn’t longer than the other. Paul has dark hair in a pudding-bowl cut, browner skin than his brother, a stubby nose and glistening eyes, and as he is pulled along almost side-ways on, he registers passers-by with an oblique stare. He doesn’t much like swimming, so he is in no hurry.

Martin is in a hurry, though. He is fairer and prone to allergies, eczema and agitation. He doesn’t sleep very well and sometimes he wets the bed. He doesn’t know why, only that it’s inappropriate. He is a big boy now and yet he is constantly assuaged by some urgent desire, to pee, to cough, to itch, to cry. He tries to dodge them, to pre-empt the urges; leaving the table before he’s finished his tea, checking out the shallow end of the pool for bombers, climbing in carefully before anyone teases him to dive. Bombing is not allowed, but like so many things (swearing, spitting, shouting, stealing) people do it anyway. Is it not allowed because so many people are doing it already? So many that the ones like him, who are bound to do as they are told, must be bound to good behaviour. Someone must behave, he supposes.

They reach the local baths, which have only been open since the start of the year. Their Dad, Gavin, holds the door open for the two of them, ushering them with grand movements through the arch beneath his right arm. As if he had just marched a whole orphanage of the things over from China, thinks the woman behind the counter. Gavin likes being a Dad. He likes the noise and value of it, and he loves their trust and their big clear eyes. In them he can go back to the beginning again and create friendly worlds of talking animals and happy planets.

“One adult and two children,” he says, pulling a small leather purse for change out of his summer jacket pocket.

“Five bob altogether,” she says and he counts out the coins in front of her. She slides them noisily off the counter, long red nails scraping the surface and, when she’s done, looks under her fringe at the half-moon face and curled hands sitting on top of her counter. She winks at Paul and his eyelids lift in surprise, as if he’d just seen a shooting star.

Gavin herds them through the reception into the men’s changing rooms. Unlike the swimming pools of his youth, you don’t change in curtained cubicles round the edges of the pool—unpeeling your pants below the strip of material, like some bawdy seaside postcard. Here you have silver lockers with keys, and wooden cubicles with doors, as well as a central changing area for schools and groups—and families.

But Martin has other ideas. He likes the privacy of the stained teak cubicles, it’s warm and cosy, possibly even a little smelly, but it feels like a very safe place to get undressed in. It even has a lock.

“You don’t want to go in there, Martin,” says his father. “We’ll be ready in two tics. Come on, son.” He reaches out for Martin’s shoulder but the boy flinches away and locks himself in the teak cabinet. Gavin sighs and sees himself as a big fat man in a changing room with a scared son who’d rather not be near him. He looks at Paul slowly undoing his laces. He is concentrating very hard. “Sometimes,” Paul says, in a considered way, as his father takes over, “I think things are harder to un-do than do-up.” His sensible brown lace-ups are very scuffed, gone beige and bulbous at the toe. They used to seem ever so long, great flappy things at the end of his feet, but now they are tight and grubby like Chinese bandages. His mother would have put him in his new summer sandals, which are two bands of sharp-edged pale blue leather, but Gavin thinks they make the boy look like a girl.

After five minutes of goosebumps and awkward manoeuvring, of stepping in and out, of trying to hide one’s private parts, they are ready. Now they must visit the wet toilet—which scares Martin because there’s no way of telling one kind of wet from the other—and walk through the chilly Verruca Pool. Verrucas came in the same hushed, threatening category as head lice, bottom worms and tramps. Sometimes Martin sees people in a single white sock, hiding their verruca. Only not hiding it because they are as good as branded in their plastic socklet.

There is a small paddling-pool on the way out of the showers, for rinsing your feet before entering the main hall. The cold water slaps ankle-high and sometimes there’s tissue floating on the top. It dribbles through a pipe in the wall and drains slowly out of a mouth-sized gap in the ceramic tiles. It reminds Martin of the lips at the top of their bathroom basin. A nice white clean basin, with a small black hole, leading to pipes and sewers and rats.

The machinery and innards and, yes, the rats of the Leicester Recreation Centre are equally hidden, only to be sensed when a staff member in shiny track-suit bottoms opens a Restricted Entry door, and heat and noise slips out. Or when Martin, clinging to the edge of the shallow end, presses himself to the corner and hears the blue chlorinated water sloshing and draining with a heavy slurp, in rhythm with the crowd-made waves that pull him away and then push him hard into the white tiles.

The animal sound of the glug and the echoing shouts of the gang on the other side of the pool make Martin want to cry with panic. He’s all alone because he got in before his Dad and Paul had made it down to this end. He already has water in one ear and chlorine in his eye. He’s nose to iron with a grate. The water, and a brick-coloured corn pad, is flowing away fast, and he’s spluttering.

“What you doing down there?” says his Dad. “You’ll get sucked down the drain hiding in the corner like that.” His father is right beside him, unclasping his hands from the rim, turning him round and giving him a big hug, like the little boy he is, and whirling him round and round in the water. They both splutter and laugh, and Martin screams “dizzy, dizzy” as they stagger, buoyantly together.

Paul is floating inside a ring with seashells and seahorses on it and he also has wings, orange ones, but the left one isn’t plugged in properly so it’s deflating. If he doesn’t pay attention he’ll just go round and round in circles, like a maimed bee. But he’s OK for the moment bobbing and flapping around the shallows, looking down at his enormous white legs and the dolphin-like body shapes deep below. Martin looks at the water inside his ring. It is blue from far away, at the other end of the pool, but then when he tries to capture it, inside his plastic swimmy ring it is clearly colourless like any old water. This is the ring he used on the beach last year. His Dad pretends that going swimming is like going to the seaside, but it doesn’t seem right to have seashells on your ring at the swimming pool. He will make them buy him another one. The only similarity between seaside and swimming pool is that there’s water in both places. You don’t have to pay to get in the sea. And the sea goes on forever, out and out and down and down. The pool has a floor that you can see. “What happens next, after the bottom of the pool?” Martin asks his father.

It’s no different from any other building, on any of the streets in Leicester, his Dad tries to explain. He likes making the world clear. But what happens below the streets is mysterious—there is matter and interruption, cased pipes criss-crossing deep below the streets, cables higher above, sewers cutting a swathe like the new M1 through great areas of earth. Paul asks about the worms and the rabbits and the moles and he imagines the world as a circular cross-section, small mammals and organisms digging around the pipes and tunnels, as if in a muddy adventure playground.

There are only certain members of staff permitted to go down to the generator and pump room. Simon Shadwick is one. He’s not an engineer—he’s a lifeguard—however, George, who is one of Leicester’s forty municipal engineers has, like a vicar, many parishes to attend to and only comes in once a week. But Simon has been trained in pool maintenance and it is his responsibility to check the system four times a day. It is a useful responsibility as it gives him more status and more money than the rest of the pool-side staff. He has high hopes of being made assistant manager by the end of the year. The leisure industry is a growing business, he reckons. These days he had five different pairs of nylon track-suit bottoms, in all colours of the rainbow, as his Mum says, who washes them by hand for him every Saturday night.

It is four-thirty in the afternoon. The pool is now closed to new swimmers. Simon is a bit late with his fourth check but he has been struggling with last clue of the Mirror crossword and as he leaves the staff room, crosses the entrance and goes through the Restricted Entry door, he is still trying to puzzle out what is eight letters long, begins with an A, and means “Need—for all sorts of things.” He stops for a second as he shuts the door. Something is different. A bit odd. What? He walks slowly down the steps to the generator room and as he reaches for the light switch the answer to both questions comes to him.

They’d been in the pool for forty minutes now, and they were the last people left. Martin’s fingers were beginning to prune so Gavin told them they had another five minutes, and that yes they could both have a packet of crisps from the cafeteria. Once he’d said that, though, it seemed to Martin and Paul that they’d like to get out right now. They were done swimming, they’d got wet and splashed a lot. They hadn’t been that keen about it, but now it was done, the bombers had been avoided and there was something else, salty rather than watery, in the offing. Martin thought about this as he climbed carefully up the steps out of the shallow end, his trunks bagging and slipping with the weight of collected water. He reached behind and held up his trunks with one hand, gripping the rail tightly with the other. It was interesting how things passed, like hours in the pool. And long dark nights. It could have been worse, he thought.

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Introduction

Two generations of secrecy and longing unfold in Hannah MacDonald’s luminous debut, THE SUN ROAD. In the novel’s arresting initial scenes, tragedy leaves a young mother stunned by grief yet propelled into a new marriage. Now, thirty years later, Lizzie watches as the legacy of her loss seeps into the lives of those she loves the most. For her daughter, Beth, solace comes not from their somber home but from neighbors—especially a childhood friend named Dan. He too grew up navigating the capricious emotions of fragile parents. But when he and Beth are reunited as adults, an unspoken love affair from Beth’s past threatens to drive them apart and confine her to the lifetime of concealment she watched her mother endure.

Every family must face at least one shattering truth. In THE SUN ROAD, those truths lead to a destination you’ll not soon forget.

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Hannah MacDonald’s THE SUN ROAD. We hope they will enrich your experience of this haunting novel.

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Foreword

1. Martin and Paul are the first characters to be introduced, though they exist throughout the novel in memory only. What is the effect of beginning the novel with scenes that exclude Lizzie?

2. What do you infer about Lizzie’s marriage to Gavin? How might her relationship with Roger have evolved if Gavin had survived? Discuss the novel’s epigraph in these terms. What does poet John Heath-Stubbs imply about the whims of the “Wheel of Fortune?”

3. What are your initial impressions of the Frederick household in Chapter Three, entitled “Kamikaze?” Why do Jacob’s children appeal to Beth?

4. Does Rachel’s approach to mothering mirror Lizzie’s in any way? What do both women impart to their children about love?

5. What aspects of Beth’s personality are carried from childhood through adulthood? In what way does her perspective change as she enters adolescence? How does Dan’s presence (and absence) make its mark?

6. Hannah MacDonald elaborates on the novel’s title in a beautiful beach scene near the end of “Frisk” (Chapter Four). As Beth and Dan observe the stream of sunlight, “Time lay ahead, glittering with potential, clear and directed as a race.” What premonitions are made through the sun road?

7. Discuss Beth’s path from prolonged sexual inexperience to becoming Jacob’s lover. Do you believe that she was consciously trying to preserve her innocence as a young woman, or was sexuality merely shaped by circumstance in her life? Who or what led to the dissolution of Dan’s innocence regarding sex?

8. Does Beth’s attitude towardromance mirror her mother’s perception of men or does Beth defy her mother’s model? Why does Beth resist Dan later in life?

9. Who are the most resilient characters in the novel? Who are the most fragile? What do the book’s images of childhood, such as the handmade birthday tokens for Rachel, express about the nature of love and longing?

10. Consider the meaning of the preface in retrospect. What is its message in light of the novel’s ending? Is “the bravery it takes to fulfill promises made to both lovers and children” a reference only to Lizzie and Jacob?

11. The novel’s chapter titles convey a range of moods. What is expressed by the name of the closing chapter, “Following”?

12. In what way do the novel’s various time periods and locales reflect the corresponding shifts in plot?

13. Was it necessary for Lizzie to hide her life with Gavin? Would Beth’s angst have been heightened or soothed by knowing the truth?

14. How does Roger’s final illness shift his family’s focus? What did he impart to Beth about men and about happiness?

15. What does THE SUN ROAD illustrate about the nature of secrecy? Is it always portrayed as a destructive force in the characters’ lives?

16. What unveiled revelations in your own family or community have shaped your life? How would you define your “sun road”?

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Reading Group Guide

1. Martin and Paul are the first characters to be introduced, though they exist throughout the novel in memory only. What is the effect of beginning the novel with scenes that exclude Lizzie?

2. What do you infer about Lizzie’s marriage to Gavin? How might her relationship with Roger have evolved if Gavin had survived? Discuss the novel’s epigraph in these terms. What does poet John Heath-Stubbs imply about the whims of the “Wheel of Fortune?”

3. What are your initial impressions of the Frederick household in Chapter Three, entitled “Kamikaze?” Why do Jacob’s children appeal to Beth?

4. Does Rachel’s approach to mothering mirror Lizzie’s in any way? What do both women impart to their children about love?

5. What aspects of Beth’s personality are carried from childhood through adulthood? In what way does her perspective change as she enters adolescence? How does Dan’s presence (and absence) make its mark?

6. Hannah MacDonald elaborates on the novel’s title in a beautiful beach scene near the end of “Frisk” (Chapter Four). As Beth and Dan observe the stream of sunlight, “Time lay ahead, glittering with potential, clear and directed as a race.” What premonitions are made through the sun road?

7. Discuss Beth’s path from prolonged sexual inexperience to becoming Jacob’s lover. Do you believe that she was consciously trying to preserve her innocence as a young woman, or was sexuality merely shaped by circumstance in her life? Who or what led to the dissolution of Dan’s innocence regarding sex?

8. Does Beth’s attitude toward romance mirror her mother’s perception of men or does Beth defy her mother’s model? Why does Beth resist Dan later in life?

9. Who are the most resilient characters in the novel? Who are the most fragile? What do the book’s images of childhood, such as the handmade birthday tokens for Rachel, express about the nature of love and longing?

10. Consider the meaning of the preface in retrospect. What is its message in light of the novel’s ending? Is “the bravery it takes to fulfill promises made to both lovers and children” a reference only to Lizzie and Jacob?

11. The novel’s chapter titles convey a range of moods. What is expressed by the name of the closing chapter, “Following”?

12. In what way do the novel’s various time periods and locales reflect the corresponding shifts in plot?

13. Was it necessary for Lizzie to hide her life with Gavin? Would Beth’s angst have been heightened or soothed by knowing the truth?

14. How does Roger’s final illness shift his family’s focus? What did he impart to Beth about men and about happiness?

15. What does THE SUN ROAD illustrate about the nature of secrecy? Is it always portrayed as a destructive force in the characters’ lives?

16. What unveiled revelations in your own family or community have shaped your life? How would you define your “sun road”?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2004

    Pulls You In

    Although I have just started this book it is already pulling me in with the characters and story line. I know this will be a good read

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