“Shine, Shine, Shine” is a story in orbit. On the surface Sunny has a perfectly suburban life: a robot expert husband who seems to be able to afford to keep them in middle-class comforts and medications, a son nicknamed Bubber (actual name Robert), a baby on the way and a respectable circle of friends, including an impeccably turned out local news presenter, who hold dinner parties and craft evenings. Even her mother being in the final stages of a terminal illness doesn’t dent this surface.
However, after a minor road traffic accident, where no one is injured, Sunny’s life begins to unravel. Her blonde wig is dislodged so her neighbours learn she is actually bald and born so. Her mother brought her up wigless to accept herself but Sunny started wearing wigs to fit in once she began pregnant with Bubber as she wanted a perfect family life. Sunny’s husband, Maxon, is a robotics expert currently in a spacecraft circling the moon, as part of a plan to colonise the moon. He likens Sunny’s head to a lightbulb, more than once. With her mother dying, Maxon away and an irrational belief her friends are no longer her friends now she’s reverted to being bald, Sunny decides to take Bubber off his medication. Bubber’s on the autistic spectrum and the aim of the medication was to help him fit into a mainstream school, although it also helped underpin Sunny’s desire for normality.
Maxon too is on the autistic scale. He came from a redneck family near where Sunny’s mother settled after returning to the US when her husband was captured (and presumably sentenced to death) in Burma where he’d been a Christian missionary pretending to be a scientist. Sunny’s mother, Emma, practically adopted Maxon from his alcoholic, abusive father and taught Maxon how to read emotions and converse with people. Maxon writes these down as formulae which not only help him socially but also enable him to programme robots who can behave more like humans, eg:
Teacher = GetTeachStatcl)
IF Teacher = NAGGING then
Head = NODDING
Loop until Teacher = QUIET”
“Shine Shine Shine” is not told linearly. Each main character, Sunny, Maxon and Emma, tell their stories as past and future orbit around the present. It’s Lydia Netzer’s skill that keeps all these stories in the voice of the narrating character and enables readers to follow whether this incident happened in the past, is happening now or will happen in the near future. Some incidents are told from more than one point of view, so although Sunny is the main character, her narrative doesn’t dominate the book. The characters also orbit around each other as Maxon and Bubber have difficulties in emotionally engaging with Sunny and Sunny is distanced from her dying mother. As she goes into labour, Sunny learns of the dark secret that lies beneath the new presenter’s impeccable appearance and faces a choice, either to keep up the pretence of a perfect life or accept herself, the very lesson her own mother had tried to teach her.
Lydia Netzer deals with issues of people on the autistic spectrum sensibly and in a way that merges seamlessly with the plot so it doesn’t feel like an exotic extra added to create an element of interest. Although the orbital approach to telling the story means dramatic tension is lost, there is more than enough interest in the characters and their stories to keep readers hooked. It’s a slow burn rather than instant classic, however, that does mean the novel can be read again and still reward readers.
By Emma Lee