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Posted on 20 Oct 2022 in Fiction |

ISOBEL BEECH Sunbathing. Reviewed by Robyne Young

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Isobel Beech’s debut novel explores the grief left behind by a father’s suicide.

From the opening scene when the unnamed daughter in Sunbathing crawls into the attic to retrieve her father’s dying cat, Donna, Isobel Beech creates an intimacy with the reader, bringing you first into her world of grief, then into the warmth and sustenance of friendship and the natural world that heals.

Death inhabits the early pages of the novel (the cat’s death, and a suicide that halts the progress of the train the narrator is travelling on through Italy), but it isn’t until she is safely in the ‘Birthing Room’ in the 300-year-old home of childhood friend Giulia and her fiancé Fab in Altino, that she begins to reveal the reason for her grief and later her guilt. Her father has suicided. During this time spent with her friends, the story of her relationship with him, her response to his death and her interrogation of grieving unfolds.

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’s forgetful, someone who loses themselves.
Someone who takes offence at everything, and thinks the whole world should
observe their every ache. Someone who makes too many jokes. Someone who
runs off to cry, quietly, mortified, in bathrooms and pantries and cabs, and
rural Italian guestrooms.

After her father’s death in Melbourne, she feels trapped in her apartment until, encouraged by her mother, she takes up walking. It is on her walks around her neighbourhood that she begins to feel the healing power of nature. 

Walking was my strategy, my big plan; how not to die of heartache. Walking I
decided, meant I couldn’t tear away from the world I lived in, not fully. Not
when I could see it and feel it. The wind on my cheeks, the grass beneath my
feet. The wet leaves turning to mush on the footpath and the warmth coming
from the houses I passed.

In Altino, she settles into the routine of her friends’ lives – Giulia, an artist, and Fab, a writer. ‘Most of the time I felt like I was Xanaxed. Swimmy and soft and easy and sleepy.’ Her connection to nature grows. Colour is everywhere – the early morning sky is ‘a grapefruit colour’, and there are ‘tangerine sunsets’. Even the sheets she helps Fab hang on the washing line are ‘yellow, white, lime, baby blue, lilac and brown’ – an echo of her earlier observation of the sky’s hues. Giulia and Fab’s garden, carefully grown from seed, nourishes. ‘We filled our plates with foods: buttered bread, tomato salad, green salad radicchio and orange, slices of frittata, olives.’ She can ‘feel her body adjusting’. 

But the narrator, despite her growing disdain for the sometimes intermittent internet (ironically, she and Giulia met on the net as teenagers), remains connected to the world, if only to remind people back home that she exists. 

I didn’t just want people to see my posts incidentally amid the ticker tape of daily content and register me, I wanted them to think of me. To see how fine I was, despite what they might’ve heard

In Melbourne, this had been her way to ‘fill the void’. 

While online she is contacted by a man ‘in the wake of the Facebook reckoning’ expressing regret over his behaviour during a night they were together. Then there’s a remembered conversation at a friend’s house in Melbourne, where one of the men says there is a need for discussion about male suicide to take precedence over the #MeToo movement. As I read this chapter it felt like a disruption, but by this stage of the novel I trusted Beech and that trust was rewarded only pages later and grew. 

Very quietly, ‘under the walnut tree’, the narrator talks to Giulia about her father’s death and the signs she may have missed. She talks about an afternoon when they didn’t discuss his lack of remorse over issues in past relationships. ‘Not on this day, though. On this day you were gentler and not interested in rehashing things.’ She talks about discussing a holiday with him that would have meant her being away for Christmas, her list of regrets, her suggestion that her father see a therapist. About the ‘impasse’ between her and her father. For me, the if onlys that hung over this conversation were heartbreaking. 

Speaking on a recent episode of ABC Radio National’s The Bookshelf about the writing of Sunbathing,Beech said she wanted to write about the time after her father’s death by suicide – the time when she was ‘enamoured by the world again for the first time’ – but she couldn’t find anything that ‘honoured’ that time. She also made it clear that 80 per cent of the work is fiction. 

I read Sunbathing in two sittings. I felt I had spent time with a friend: had meaningful conversations, cried and celebrated with her and bathed in the sun in a region of Italy I have always wanted to visit.

Beech’s style is poetic and I look forward to reading more of her fiction. 

Isobel Beech Sunbathing Allen and Unwin 2022 PB 304pp $29.99

If you’re in need of crisis support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 in Australia and 0800 543 354 in New Zealand at any time of day or night or visit to access mental health tests, tools and support resources.

Robyne Young lives and works on Wiradjuri land and writes micro, short and long fiction, and poetry. She has an MA in Cultural and Creative Practice from Western Sydney University’s Writing and Society Research Centre. Her latest anthology, Single Shots is available from A new short story ‘The Uncashed Cheques in Castro’s Drawer’ will be published in the upcoming Booranga Writers fourW thirty-three.

You can buy Sunbathing from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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