By Eleanor Bowskill, Victoria Bromley, Hannah McWinnie and Zarah Yesufu
As a coming of age, sapphic love story, Sunburn is the hottest book of the summer. Howarth takes us on a journey of young love, following Lucy and Sussanah’s yearning to be together within the constraints of their traditional Irish village, Crossmore, which limits them from expressing their love outside of platonic affection. In the scorching heat, Lucy and Sussanah share a summer of romance away from the disapproving eyes of their friends and family, yet how far can their love sustain them when Sussanah is eager to leave town and Lucy doesn’t want to follow?
Howarth’s portrayal of female friendships feels like an accurate and familiar depiction of those we form on the cusp of womanhood. There is a clear sense in which young women in particular have been pressured “to achieve a perfect version of themselves,” which often results in “comparison and potentially competition” between each other. In her adolescence, Lucy was not provided with the “positive, nurturing atmosphere” that would have allowed her to thrive. The small but frequent remarks made by her mother “fed into” the insecurities which prevented Lucy from being true to herself.
Lucy also has complicated feelings about Crossmore. Howarth explained she is “fond” of her small town home, because it is all she has ever known and, although quick to “comment on its flaws,” she acknowledges that Crossmore is part of “who she is.” In many ways, Lucy belongs to the village, to the community, and feels this connection even when she is “quite separate” from it. However, she becomes “fixated on the things that make her different” to the extent that it becomes hard for her to look past them.
The intergenerational community of Crossmore only exacerbates the difficulties of mother-daughter relationships. Whilst the “issues that face women mutate and evolve,” traditional ideologies get applied to modern sentiments which “cause a great strain in relationships.” We see this in Lucy and her mother, who only tries to pass down “survival techniques” to protect her daughter, but instead comes across “controlling and narrow minded.” However “her mother has always lived in Crossmore…She knows what it takes to live a ‘normal’ and happy life in the village, and she wants this exact version of normalcy and happiness to remain in her family.”
In the earlier chapters, Lucy mentions that she feels safe reading her letters aloud because the act of doing so makes them no longer her own. Howarth agreed with this sentiment, and argued that writing your thoughts on paper can be “therapeutic” as it’s an outlet through which you can examine what you feel from an “objective” standpoint. For Lucy, writing became a way to “acknowledge her feelings” without having to “confront them” head-on. By addressing her letters to Susannah, she was able to give these difficult feelings to someone else for interpretation.
Lucy longed for those closest to her to be honest with their feelings, yet was reserved in telling her own truth. Howarth describes this as “an unfortunate combination of yearning to be understood and being afraid to be known.” She believes this to be a “universal experience,” how we want “to know what others are feeling while guarding our own feelings.” While this struggle is “amplified” through the setting of Crossmore, Lucy “would feel this way to some extent” regardless of setting “because she isn’t yet confident with who she is as a person.”
While Lucy and Susannah’s love was fierce and ever growing, Lucy “knows that she can’t give everything she has to the relationship” by leaving all her loved ones behind to be with Susannah. Perhaps, as Howarth suggests, it’s the sense of having to battle to “win the approval” of her friends and family which makes Lucy strive for their acceptance whereas Sussanah is “good to her,” so she’s “the easiest person to disregard.”
Lucy’s narrative is often directed towards the reader, to the extent that she is “more honest” when speaking to the reader “than the way she speaks to Susannah.” Howarth suggests that Lucy’s consciousness of her reader’s presence “puts pressure on her to examine her feelings and to justify” her actions. Howarth explained that having the reader as “another source from which she seeks approval and understanding” reflects most of Lucy’s relationships, and elevates the feeling of teenage loneliness that comes from having many friends, but never feeling close enough to be completely comfortable around them.
To conclude our discussion, while Howarth shows the blunt reality of girlhood, she said “when you form a strong sense of self and you are comfortable with who you are, the right people are drawn to you.”