Isobel Beech has produced a wonderfully quiet meditation on grief in her debut novel, Sunbathing.
After weeks of grieving, the unnamed woman at the centre of the story books a flight to Italy, to stay with her friends Giulia and Fab, in the lead-up to their wedding. The couple live in the mountains of Abruzzo, in an old villa with a large garden, and the woman’s days fall into a rhythm of tending the vegetable patch, walking to the nearby village, and reflecting on who and what she had lost in Melbourne.
In modern Western societies, mourning largely lacks ritual, leaving the bereaved feeling unmoored. Beech captures this in her main character, who quickly finds that her previous understanding of mourning and grief does not fit her lived experience –
I wondered if only family members and ex-wives were sent flowers, and why that was. I wondered, too, why flowers at all? Why not huge bottles of vodka or books on how not to die of grief, and why not vouchers for resorts or beach shack rentals, so that a person feeling like this could just go away and be alone for as long as possible?
Initially, it is unclear who has died, however, the woman’s rumination on events before the death soon reveal that it was her father, by suicide. Importantly, Beech keeps the distressing circumstances of the death to internal monologue, creating jarring transitions between the woman’s grief and her languid, sun-drenched days in the Italian countryside. Of death, the woman thinks –
…I was realising, I’d never felt it fully. Not if real loss picked you up and held you by the feet and shook you, so that everything you knew came falling out of your head like spare change. Not if real loss reached into your favourite places (home, bed, car) and stripped them of all warmth and normality. Not if real loss meant that even the most innocuous comments from strangers or loved ones could reduce you to a pile of dust, somehow both incensed and demolished.
Beech captures the anger associated with grief, and this is particularly relevant in the context of suicide, where emotions are frequently complicated by feelings of confusion, guilt and shame.
Someone who suspected approached me at the funeral. ‘I hope you don’t feel responsible,’ they said, squeezing my shoulder. What a painfully useless thing to hope. That was just about the only thing I felt.
The Italian countryside gets a special mention – I was completely transported and lush descriptions of Giulia and Fab’s garden were so beautifully rendered that I was sure Beech was drawing on a place meaningful to her (it is, as described in this article). And yet, the woman wrestles with her conscience in Italy, seeing it as an escape rather than an attempt to rest, and heal.
Summertime in Italy, fresh vegetables from the garden, taking turns washing the dishes, reading to each other, learning about cherry worms. Strange how badly I could punish myself for abandoning you once, then go and do it again.
There’s a very slight misstep in the novel when the characters become absorbed in a Me Too discussion. It read as Beech having something to say but I question if this was the place to say it (despite the dinner party monologue by one of the woman’s friends being an excellent piece of writing).
I read lots of stories about grief, and one aspect of Sunbathing that sets it apart is the role of Giulia. Giulia is the friend you want while grieving (and in fact, at any time!) – undemanding, gauging the woman’s feelings, steady, and knowing when to give space and when to challenge. This book is as much about friendship as it is about grieving.
We found trees bearing unripe apricots and just-ripe loquats. I’d never had a loquat, I told her.
“You would have,” she said. “They’re everywhere in Preston, Thornbury. They’re in all the old nonnas’ front yards.” … I bit into the one in my hand. It was like a cumquat but less sour.
There was a huge loquat tree in the garden when I was growing up. We usually ate them straight from the tree but occasionally my mum would make loquat jam.