Lullaby Beach by Stella Duffy – 2021

Lucy is a “fourth-generation child of Westmere” weighed down by a burden of secrets. Beth, Lucy’s mother, and Lucy’s Aunt Sara are both living with sorrows of the past. All three have always found solace and comfort in Kitty, the sisters’ great aunt. But when Lucy goes to see Kitty in her cabin at the end of the bay, to ask for help, she finds her body. Kitty has committed suicide.

Beth and Sara are sad and angry, angry that Kitty has left them with no farewell or explanation. But Lucy has even more secrets; she has taken a note left by Kitty on which are four dates. Through Lullaby Beach, the reader finds out the significance of the dates, and the three women finally open up to each other so they too can piece together the abuse endured by all of the women, including Kitty: “All this crap has been going on for years. Long before us.” And the perpetrators of the crimes have all been from one Westmere family, the Nelsons.

Lullaby Beach is the cabin that Kitty has lived in since her return from London in the 1950s. It was an extension of the family run B&B in the small seaside town. And it is now coveted by Nelson Construction, as their foreshore tourism development requires land for an eco-friendly carpark. The Nelsons stand for white male privilege, they assume ownership, of business, of land, of people.

Danny Nelson, who is now in his 80s like Kitty, was an abuser, an horrific combination of violent abuse, childlike contrition, and business-like pragmatism. His grand-nephew Mark takes after him. Danny was always distraught that the only time his mother intervened in her husband’s violence was to protect the family dog, not her son. He too protects a random dog, but there’s no-one to protect Kitty. Sara worked for Nelson Construction, prior to going to university in Newcastle – that’s where she met Mark. 

Beth is jealous of Sara, jealous of how Lucy confides in her rather than her Mum. She thinks Lucy is just going through a stage of teenage surliness, until she learns what she has been dealing with. Through the book, Beth and Lucy are associated with fire, while Sara loves swimming in the cold sea. The sisters clash over what to do about the cabin now that Kitty has gone. Until they discover Kitty’s story, and the constant pain and ongoing harassment to which she has been subjected. The stories of male violence and cruelty persist, “She said to love him anyway, love him out of his moods when words wouldn’t work”.

Kitty’s funeral is sad, Sara’s eulogy very moving – Lucy’s little sister Etta, Beth and their father, having to support her. Afterwards, Lucy takes selfies of herself as a corpse. Kitty’s suicide has been exact, her nursing background ensuring she got the doses just right. Both Lucy and Beth lie about what they have taken from Kitty’s cabin, both wanting the power of knowing a secret.

And the secrets of women are what Lullaby Beach is about, the secrets of abuse, rape, violence, abortions, blackmail, still-births, depression … The continual stifling of women’s lives. Even Yulia, at one time Sara’s flamboyant lover, liked “to dress in neutral colours, quiet clothes, to get through the night in the bar as a server of drinks, not someone to be interested in, looked over, reached for”, and Kitty after returning from London, feels liberated when dressing in her mother’s clothes to hide her pregnancy, liberated from attention that might inexplicably turn to violence.

“I said no. I. Said. No.”, But who listens to women? Everyone is judgemental of a woman who decides to stand out, speak out. Even a random cabbie is critical of Kitty in London when she is returning from helping along one of Danny’s schemes. And when one of the sisters decides to make an historical rape allegation, she knows it will do nothing but protect Lucy, there will be no justice for her. But “The trolls were both worse and far more relentless than she had expected.”

Lullaby Beach is a sad read, there is an awful abortion scene, and later the sad consequences. But there is also the security of the sisters’ friendship, and their determination to honour Kitty’s life of sacrifice, after realising women so often forget that older women have had their own tragedies. After the crucible of events there is the relief of the two sisters swimming in the cold sea. I would definitely recommend this book!    

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