Seventeen year old Lesley is a typical teenage girl: her worries revolve around boys, choosing the right college and bickering with her younger sister Megan. She adores her beautiful, captivating mother Mara, who tells evocative stories of her childhood in Hungary and Germany before the war. However, Mara has one memory of the past that she can never share…
As Lesley begins to uncover the horror of her mother’s secret, their idyllic family life shatters around them, and Lesley realises that her mother is not the person she thought she knew.
I’ve never read Torey Hayden before as a non-fiction author, so A Sunflower Forest was my first experience of her as a writer – and although I’ve heard many people saying her non-fiction is of higher quality than her fiction, I can only compare A Sunflower Forest to other similar works of the same genre, and in addition would like to be completely fair to Hayden by viewing her first foray into fiction as a standalone piece.
A Sunflower Forest is told from the eyes of Lesley O’Malley, a teenage girl living with her younger sister Megan, father (simply referred to as O’Malley), and mother Mara in 1978 Kansas. Mara is a Hungarian WW2 Holocaust survivor experiencing sever mental trauma from her past, a fact which her husband and daughters continually try and overlook in their attempt to live a ‘normal’ life.
Family time in the O’Malley household is dictated by Mara’s abruptly changing moods and personality quirks, and although she enjoys periods of calmness and functionality, her condition creates a severe strain felt strongly by the rest of them, especially Lesley. Lesley tries to understand her mother and placate her when she has one of her ‘turns’, yet as time goes by she realises that Mara is slowly getting worse, and that there are so many more horrific elements to her past than Lesley ever imagined.
Mara’s secret, revealed mid way through the story, involves the horrors of being detained in a prisoner of war camp and forced into a selective breeding programme. Through her hazy memories mixed with psychotic delusions and bad dreams, tragic events come to light that go some way in explaining Mara’s unhealthy obsession with a young boy from the neighbourhood and her bizarre recurring fantasies about people neither Lesley nor Megan have ever heard of. Mara’s journey is one filled with heartbreak, confusion and tragedy, and hearing of it as you do through the voice of a scared, naïve and discomfited teenage girl, you soon develop a deep sense of sympathy both for Lesley and her mother, made possible by Hayden’s beautifully compassionate prose.
Mara is eccentric at her best and psychotic at her worse, and were it not for the careful choice of words and balancing of emotions by Hayden, I feel she would be very easy to dislike or judge, committing as she does some extremely questionable actions throughout the novel. To say much more about this matter would be falling prey to spoilers, as much of the appeal and power of The Sunflower Forest is the suspense and shock felt with each instance of each of Mara’s ‘episodes’ and what they entail.
Lesley’s life as a teenager runs as a back story to her family life, and when she isn’t focused on Mara, we see her trying to come to terms with school work, moving house, friendships and boys. When the focuses switches from Mara to Lesley, Hayden’s narration becomes almost faultlessly ‘teenager’, and we are able to get a true picture of Lesley herself – a scared, insecure individual somewhat damaged by her mothers neuroses, feeling as she does ‘set apart’ from the rest of society with all their ‘normal mothers’. Despite this, Lesley never speaks badly of Mara, wishing only for her to get better and escape the horrific memories that steal her away from both Lesley and the rest of the family. A Sunflower Forest is realistic and believable the whole way through, which in turn makes the events all the more tragic and personal– I found it hard at times not to break off and imagine what my own behaviour would be like in such a scenario.
The book’s namesake filters in throughout the story, with Mara repeatedly mentioning her love for sunflowers and gardens; eventually coming to climax in the penultimate chapters. Lesley discovers exactly why her mother is so fixated on that particular plant, finding out that even then all is not what it seems, and so begins a journey across the world to Wales to seek the truth. Whilst there, she uncovers more than even she originally bargained for, and the effects of the revelation she is witness to have an astounding impact upon the family unit.
To conclude with a comment on the ending would give away what is perhaps the biggest cliff-hanger of all, so I will say only that if you wish to partake in a rollercoaster ride of mental illness, barbaric history, beautiful imagery and engaging prose, you should pick up this book and read it until you think you understand it, and then go back and read it again. A Sunflower Forest is one of those books that you sit and think about even when you’re not reading it, and shiver with a thousand different emotions when you are. Poignant, funny, haunting and distorted, this is a story that reminds you of just how much cruelty can affect the human psyche, not just for one generation but for two and three generations to come – a theme that always seems to be relevant, whenever it is explored.
A Sunflower Forest was most recently published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers in 2008, and is currently available from Amazon and most good book stores.