Sunshine Is Forever
By: Arlene Allen
Teen suicide and YA fiction have been at the forefront of national discussion recently thanks in part to the Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s runaway smash teen novel Thirteen Reasons Why. Cowan’s novel could easily have been subtitled “Thirteen Reasons Why Not.” Looking at depression and suicide from many different angles, the story goes beyond bullying and looks into other reasons young adults may have for wanting to kill themselves, including self loathing, abuse and homosexuality.
The main character, Hunter, falls into a relentless depression after a traumatic incident alters his life. Multiple suicide attempts land him finally in Camp Sunshine, a rehab center for depressed and suicidal kids like himself. After cutting himself off from society for nearly two years, Hunter finds himself making friends in this unlikeliest of places. It’s like the Lowood School in Jane Eyre where rations are carefully monitored, harsh penalties meted out for any type of infraction, seemingly useless treatments whose only design seems to be to make the campers miserable and “character building” activities no one wants to participate in.
Hunter has become a master of shutting people out and keeping them out of the last place he wants anyone to be: his head. Like many teens, he feels shut out and abandoned by his parents, Harpy Patricia and Surgeon Dick. And for all outward appearances, Surgeon Dick pays more attention to his cell phone than to his son. He is taken by surprise when he finds himself interacting with and slowly becoming friends with the five other guys in his “cell block” – Blaze, Wyatt, Finley, Ash and Quint. He learns each of the guys’ back stories without ever giving up his own.
Hunter also meets the girl he firmly believes will be the great love of his life at Camp Sunshine, the beautiful and mysterious Corin. Everybody from the therapists to the counselors on down to the other boys warns him to stay away from Corin – although no one will tell him why or say anything except that she has now been to the camp three times. When Corin cooks up a plan to escape “Camp Suicide,” Hunter goes all in not knowing he’s about to change everyone’s lives once again.
The book definitely addresses serious issues and does so respectfully, but this does not mean it gets bogged down in that seriousness. Hunter has a wry and depreciating sense of humor which permeates all but the worst of situations. His voice is fresh, relatable and honest and I think he will charm most teenage readers (and some adult readers, too). It deals alternatively between honesty and self deception, accountability and forgiveness, light and darkness.
Unlike Hannah in Thirteen Reasons Why, Cowan does not let his characters get away with placing all of the blame on others – not other teens, not parents and not counselors, even when the adults around them genuinely deserve to shoulder some of the responsibility. Life (and death) is never as simple as that and in a manner no less than existential characters and readers are forced to look at the role they play in their own situations. I really like that the author gives no easy outs, lets us be shocked and offers solutions other than suicide. Although he certainly does not judge those who have attempted it, he makes it clear their pain is real, and we as readers feel that pain. He lets his characters – and us – believe in redemption. It’s an expression of hope that Thirteen Reasons Why lacked yet Sunshine is Forever is never preachy.
The book is a fast paced read, ratcheting up the tension as it barrels along to its multiple big reveals. It certainly kept me hooked until the very end and even then I wanted to see more of these characters. This is one novel I would definitely recommend to readers of all ages, but especially to teens and young adults to whom Hunter and his friends would be especially relatable.
It’s interesting to note that this is Cowan’s first novel. He is best known for acting in projects such as “Odd Thomas,” “Manhattan,” “Preacher” and “Better Call Saul.” He was writer and producer of the films Camouflage and The Legend of Crazy Larry. He directed The Legend of Crazy Larry as well. Cowan has a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts in writing and directing from the University of Colorado. It is evident he has put his many talents to good use. Sunshine is Forever is a very descriptive and action filled novel, and I can certainly see it making its way to the screen, be it small or large.