Sunbathing is the story of a young woman nursing her grief in an Italian country idyll. In the wake of her father’s death from suicide, our unnamed narrator accepts an invitation to fly from Melbourne to Abruzzo, where she will stay with her friends Giulia and Fab in the months prior to their wedding. There, she spends her days gardening and cooking, while exploring the village and her own internal landscape. She spends nights in the Birthing Room – where generations of Fab’s family have entered the world – and sifts through her memories as she begins the healing process.
Page one opens with the death of a cat. Our narrator recalls her childhood – a sick pet slinking away into the attic to die and her father comforting her – You held me with one arm and said some animals like to die alone and that’s okay. But it was cold up there, so I asked if we could bring her down. We set up the ladder together and I went first. It’s a brief, bittersweet scene that sets the tone for the rest of the book. This debut novel from Melbourne writer Isobel Beech wears its themes – and heart – on its sleeves.
In this highly introspective book, the narrator speaks directly to her late father in short, epistolary fragments that bounce between loving evocation of a rural Italian summer and the unspooling of her crippling grief. Beech’s chapters are brief, self-contained, scattershot – describing a dinner, a dream, feminist appraisals of #metoo, the adventures of a half-stray cat. It’s a style of writing that offers a more polished, poetic mirror of the social media posts the books’ narrator is hooked on. These vignettes combine to make for an intensely personal exploration of grief, written for a contemporary, extremely online generation.
The literary idea of healing from trauma in a bucolic Italian setting is a well-worn one, but Beech subverts the trope with her insight into a world where we are all addicted to our phones. The experience of going into a kind of exile to nurse one’s grief, while being unable to unplug from social media is perfectly rendered. Our narrator is appalled by the online world, but unable to stop piling the vicarious traumas of the 24-hour news cycle onto her own, to the point she worries that she carries it like an illness: Like my body was full of these slimy clusters of content.
It’s that accumulation of angst that is the heart of this book. Spare, introverted, there’s very little in the way of plot or big story beats; no antagonist beyond the narrator’s depression, no conflict beyond the question of whether she will recover from her anguish. Character development takes a back seat to the slow self-actualisation of the narrator.
The diverse threads Beech has woven into Sunbathing – sumptuous travel writing, political anger, a gentle ode to friendship and the solace we find in other people – bob up and are subsumed by melancholy. It’s at its strongest when articulating the way grief humbles and deranges us. Beech provides an immaculate portrait of the grieving process – stabs of panic, rueful humour, the false hope and terrible lucidity of dreams, the struggle to find a way to live while shouldering devastating regret.
Mourning is humiliating, that’s something nobody ever tells you. Or nobody told me. Not even books or movies. It’s clumsy and inconvenient and you may well come to hate what it turns you into – inarticulate, cagey, vague, selfish, moody, paranoid … someone who runs off to cry, quietly, mortified, in bathrooms and pantries and cabs, and rural Italian guest rooms.
Readers looking for emotional veracity will be rewarded here. Certain elements – the precision with which conversations are recalled, scrupulously vague allusion to incidents and social milieu in Melbourne – read like diaries that have been carefully fictionalised. Beech has noted that the book began as a very private Google Doc where I would empty out my feelings about the day-to-day experience of loss to suicide.
The result is a baseline level of searing emotional intensity that rarely lets up. If you’re looking for a deep dive into complicated sorrow, loss, and wracking guilt – this is the book for you.
Sunbathing by Isobel Beech is published by Allen & Unwin, $29. 99.
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