With International Women’s Day on the horizon, what better choice for a read than a Virago book?
That name always conjures up those green covers and spines, and a particular little shop I used to haunt in London, many years ago, in a little street near the Royal Courts of Justice. It had an impressive and beautifully-presented display and I would treat myself most weeks. Carmen Callil, Virago’s founder, once described their aims as being “to break a silence, to make women’s voices heard, to tell women’s stories”.
Stella Duffy, in Lullaby Beach, published by Virago in September last year, has met all those aims. The story begins in contemporary times, with the discovery by Lucy of her great-aunt Kitty’s suicide, at her beach hut in Westmere. We discover that Kitty has been a “rock” to Lucy and her sister, and to Lucy’s mother and aunt too, but the letter she leaves behind reveals the suffering she had endured and gives us four dates which turn out – without wanting to give too much away – to be key.
Lucy – and her mother and aunt – have secrets of their own. We start to uncover these as the story takes us back to the mid-fifties, and the stultifying atmosphere of small-town life on the south coast, where Kitty is determined not to be stuck forever at her parents’ boarding house. Then to London – on the surface so glamorous and alluring; so many of us will recall that sheer joy at having a place of one’s own, which Stella Duffy conveys so well.
Yet Danny, Kitty’s boyfriend– and London – are not at all what they are cracked up to be. After a while, Kitty is back in Westmere, where she makes a home at the beach hut, where the door is always open for nieces and great nieces – and a career in nursing.
The book tackles a huge number of issues. Many of us in this part of the world will identify with coastal over-development and greed. It also confronts troubling issues head-on, such as rape, violence, gender inequality, revenge, race and “Me Too.” Danny and his nephew Mark – who has followed in his uncle’s footsteps – add a disturbing layer of menace, but they are by no means stereotypical, one-dimensional villains.
With Kitty – drawn so vividly and engagingly – at its heart, Lullaby Beach is both a tender and a gritty read and a fierce and passionate portrait of sisterhood and aunthood too.