SUMMARY – The 10-second review
Wonderfully written but painful book about women’s lives. The trauma and painful legacy of abusive relationships.
Lullaby Beach is a surprising and painful book to read, and an even more difficult book to review. It’s a layered, engrossing exploration of the quite ordinary lives of several generations of women and the painful secrets they carry.
It’s such a difficult book to describe without spoilers. It begins with Lucy, a teenager living on the South Coast of England, finding the body of her much-loved great-aunt, Kitty, aged 81, who has committed suicide. Much of the book is told from Kitty’s point of view, recounting a year in her life in 1956-1957. A year of falling in love, moving to London, getting her first home away from home, her first job, and the gradual descent into an abusive relationship with the controlling, charismatic, utterly nasty Danny Nelson.
Kitty returns home to live in the family’s beach hut at Lullaby Beach. Despite her painful actions to break ties with Danny Nelson, the lives of the Nelson family and Kitty’s family become intertwined over the following decades up to the present day.
A running theme in Lullaby Beach is the abuse of women by ruthless men who treat women like objects. Women who are first swayed by emotion and then threatened by physical violence. And who innately know that the only thing they can expect, if they reveal what has happened to them, is not love and support but condemnation and more abuse. They hold in their secrets, lock in their shame.
Nothing has really changed
You could interpret this novel as ‘women in the 1950s had no power and had to shamefully hide their experiences but today we can speak up, thanks in part to women’s increasing power in society and in part to movements like #MeToo’. But I think that Duffy is really saying that nothing has changed. Not really. Women can fight back with a little more confidence, but they will still be condemned for speaking up and revealing abuse.
Nobody was listening then, and nobody really wants to listen now.
The media swarm around the #MeToo movement might well give courage to some women, but it doesn’t do much to alleviate the sheer pain and lifelong trauma of individual women. For every #MeToo story there are millions of untold stories, millions of women still living with secret trauma, pain and shame. They may find some relief and support in admitting their secrets to those closest to them, but that’s about it. Speaking up more publicly can still result in brutal shaming.
What readers will take from this book will depend, I think, very much on their own lives and experiences. On how much these topics touch them. For some it will be a rich, engrossing novel about strong, gritty women gloriously finding the strength to speak up and stand up for themselves. The women in this novel are indeed brave and wonderful. There’s enormous tenderness and sisterhood and love in these pages, and it is comforting and heartwarming.
Other readers might find it much more personal and painful, even triggering, to read. They might admire the bravery of women who speak up, while raging against abusers, and feeling sadness and empathy for those who have suffered abuse. Some may be left feeling depressingly weighed down by the impossibility, for whatever reasons, of speaking up themselves.
For my part, I admire and applaud Stella Duffy for tackling such difficult issues and writing such a marvelous novel about them. May it encourage other women to speak up and tell their stories.
My thanks to Netgalley for giving me a free copy of this book. All my reviews are 100% honest and unbiased, regardless of how I acquire the book.
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