Susannah Begbie – The Deed

Hachette, Australia, 2024
Cover design Christabella Designs

Susannah Begbie was the winner of the 2002 Richell Prize with this novel. She writes with an astute eye for human behaviour but also with compassion and humour.

Barbie talks to Susannah Begbie about The Deed

Death is a subject that can be tricky to handle in literature, but the author has created a story rich in observation of both the risibility of human beings and their behaviour and their capacity to rise when circumstances demand.

It’s a story about grief and family relationships – sibling to sibling, parent to child, spouse to spouse. Tom Edwards, patriarch and farmer at Ellerslie, knowing he is dying, sets a task in his will to test the mettle of his four children, all of whom have been somewhat of a disappointment to him. To inherit the not insubstantial property they must work together to hand-build a coffin of certain specifications, including the timber, which must be sourced from the property itself.

And thus we meet the adult children, firstly Jenny who lives nearby and deals with Tom’s body which she discovers. Then there is Dave, unsuccessful and much in debt businessman, desperately in need of cash to pay his bills and importantly to hold on to his faltering marriage.

Christine is the wife of a wealthy and successful surgeon, but we soon find that there are cracks in the relationship which momentarily floor her – not for long though as her businesswoman persona soon emerges.

The baby of the family is Sophie who has been a favourite with Tom, but has blotted her copy book during her aimless years of travelling. She’s flirtatious and a bit of a flibbertigibbet when we meet her.

Slowly the youthful stories of the children emerge along with Tom’s own youth and his marriage. Here too there has been conflict and grief, sibling rivalry with the feckless Jock, resentment towards his mother for her indulgence of the black sheep brother.

Another complication the children encounter is in the will’s provision that if they do not meet all the conditions the estate will pass to the shonky lawyer, Vince Barton. It’s hefty motivation to shape up.

There’s an element of old-fashioned melodrama to this tale. The characters are large and flawed, but never seen without a compassionate lens. They are forensically examined – their insecurities, the reasons for their adult selves, the bizarre behaviours, the melt-downs, the mustering of courage, self-interest, selflessness, changes of heart, sudden epiphanies, a rising to the occasion.

In the end what we see is the complexity of sibling and other family relationships. We all carry a lot when it comes to siblings, and indeed to our parents and our children. What we also take away, however, is love – we don’t get these tangled relationships right all the time, but if there is love we can at least in part succeed. And very often there is love, albeit sometimes buried by time, the daily grind and long harboured hurts.

This is a book that tosses us between laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of human behaviour and sadness in the face of enormous grief and pain. The author makes perspicacious observations of people; she demonstrates a great capacity to write the wry, the hilarious and the strange.

But she also clearly shows a deep care for humanity and an understanding of the importance of connection, be it to pastoral holdings or to other places of the heart.

The strength of blood bonds can sometimes be underestimated, but it remains and can be mustered when the circumstances are right – and not merely by greed, but also by genuine ties that sometimes prove beyond our ken.

I look forward to more from this clever, sensitve author.

Thank you to Hachette for my review copy and to Susannah for speaking with me about how interesting people and their relationships are – life, death, family and place, all important issues in this treasure of a book.