Reviewed: Sunbathing, Isobel Beech, Allen & Unwin
Why make something ‘a novel’, as Sunbathing marks itself on the cover? In Isobel Beech’s debut, the prerogative for fiction’s sheltering veneer is hers, and clear enough, as she transmutes her own skin-strippingly personal story into something else. Her novel sees a woman leave Melbourne in the aftermath of her father’s suicide to spend two months in the safe orbit of friends in the Italian countryside, where she begins to attempt to process what has happened.
There’s a sense of something diluted, through which careful reflections on grief float up like a skein of dye in water. Spliced between afternoon vignettes of ‘swimmy and soft and sleepy and easy’ Abruzzo, the narrator’s other story rolls out in tighter sketches: of her father, what she did and didn’t do in the lead-up to his death, the painful counterfactuals she’s been left with.
We encounter her heavily dissociated, dreading the moment someone might ask her how she is. To the narrator, grief is not cathartic or easy to access. ‘Mourning is humiliating,’ she observes, frequently waking to a queasy ambush of shame, anger, regret; then, just as often, she finds herself ‘fine somehow’—which brings on its own vertigo of panic and guilt.
Beech has said that by writing this down, she built herself ‘a room in which to feel things’. Some of the best writing in Sunbathing appears in these moments of almost unbearable feeling. The week after her father went missing, for example, ‘lives now in my head like a flash of sunlight’. Finally broaching the loss with her friend is akin to ‘catching fire in front of her’. ‘I wanted to disappear,’ she says. ‘But I also wanted to tell Giulia this stuff forever and ever and ever.’
The breaking of the dam, she knows, will be overwhelming. But as she emerges from her fractured cocoon, the Italian landscape holds her in soft abeyance. Even as the narrator cramps with self-consciousness about the Instagrammability of it all, the grass, the cats and the mosquito bites keep her tethered to a peaceful present. Daily rituals—walking up a hill, doing dishes in the afternoon sun—mean she can’t ‘tear away from the world I lived in, not fully’. She gradually starts to move through the paralysing fear that her own grip on life could also slip, that anyone’s might.
In Sunbathing, online life hovers, boiling and separate from the offline: in the apps she can’t quit, the procession of horrors to scroll through. She and Giulia observe a MeToo reckoning virtually brokered in their group, caught in the weird intersection of aimless browsing and raw experience, stress and rage.
Beech has a great ear for the cadences of dialogue: mild breakfast chat, pre-dawn arguments escalating between friends, the jagged conversations you have with someone who’s hurting. But a certain reticence mutes the narrator’s internal monologue. ‘Kind-ofs’ and ‘don’t knows’ cushion her impressions; epiphanies are shorted by internet-speak (a ‘sense of Satisfaction in Being’, the looming duty of ‘Doing the Work’) and self-help shorthand. A protective casualness thus permeates everything, her sincerity frequently but never totally punctured by a qualifying ‘don’t worry, I know how this sounds’. Is it a knowing portrayal of millennial hyper self-awareness? A more ambivalent look at the sticky lexicons foreclosing our private existential lives now? Beech’s framing doesn’t feel so deliberate. Irony clouds earnestness, or vice versa, blurring the author-narrator’s contact with the profound. But perhaps this gentle buffer is just what is intended.
Despite its graceful structure, the novel reads like a long email to a new friend: this happened, then this happened, this was how it made me feel, this is what it meant. It’s a kind of detailed explaining and itemising of the self that leaves very little to be found between the lines. It speaks to a wider trend: authors and characters determined not to give you the wrong idea, or let you stumble off with it yourself.
Without subtext, there’s not a lot for a reader to do. For readers with resonant experiences, this sort of book can be, as it is for the author, a precious space in which to retrace them. But whether or not the events in it are ‘fiction’, such a process feels closer to memoir. To me fiction is richest when, and because, it doesn’t explain: art that allows for discovery on the part of both author and reader—with gaps, where a reader is left to find meaning (or not) on their own.
Imogen Dewey is a writer, editor and journalist.