Sunbathing might sound like a relaxing holiday read but it is in fact an absorbing study of the grief of a nameless young woman who has lost her father to suicide. Isobel Beech makes apparent how complex grief can be in these circumstances and does so with an authority grounded in personal experience. Beech has acknowledged the autobiographical foundation of this book, which is written in first person and reads just like a memoir. Yet Sunbathing is subtitled “A novel”.
The decision to fictionalise her experience allows Beech certain liberties. For one, she is able to transform the writing residency in rural Italy, during which she started work on the novel, into a vacation with Italian friends. These young friends live in an ancestral home surrounded by vegetable gardens, lovingly watered by hand. The novel thus offers the appeal of an idealised escape – something suggested by the novel’s title – but also of idealised friendship. While the unnamed narrator engages in “grisly self-pity”, her friends nurture her as patiently as they nurture their garden.
If I seem critical of such factitiousness in characterisation, it’s because the novel is otherwise so daringly honest – especially about the emotional landscape of the young narrator – in a way that provides insight into the inner world of millennials. For example, while the novel is centred on exploring the specifics of the narrator’s grief, it also addresses how that grief intersects with other existential crises such as loneliness and meaninglessness. Grief amplifies “the Fear That Being on Earth Was Not Possible”. Reflecting on her reliance on social media, she realises: “I needed to exist.”
Social media also allows her to witness the suffering of others. Indeed, it is on social media that she notices a wave of suicides among white men. Confronting how she had criticised her father for his selfish behaviour shortly before his death, the narrator finds herself reflecting on the call-to-accountability issued by the Me Too movement. The impact of #MeToo is exposed as material among her generation, with men from the woman’s past sending her ambiguous messages suggesting their guilt or fear. Meanwhile, the narrator finds herself grappling with a “sickness I’d had since before I could remember (empathy for men who did not return the courtesy)”.
If the distance afforded by the title “fiction” is what allowed Beech to explore such brave territory, I take back any criticism. Sunbathing may offer you the aesthetic equivalent of sunglasses, but perhaps it is only so you can stare into the harsh light of the sun.
Allen & Unwin, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Sunbathing, Isobel Beech".
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