#SheReviews The Beautiful Words by Vanessa McCausland

January 27, 2022


Breathtaking. Spellbinding. Classy. Elegant. These are the resolutely deserved adjectives that come to mind to describe Australian author, Vanessa McCausland’s, latest evocatively transformative novel, “The Beautiful Words”.

The novel fluctuates effortlessly and seamlessly between Palm Beach (an idyllic seaside locale on Sydney’s picturesque northern beaches) in 1996, and the present day (which predominantly takes place on an unnamed privately owned island and Bruny Island – both off the south-west coast of Tasmania, in summer), in addition to snatches of the late 1960s. 

Our two main female protagonists, Sylvie and Kase, have previously been best friends as seventeen-year-olds, but have not spoken to each other for the past twenty-three years. Twenty-three years ago, as serenely innocent, yet idealistically ambitious, seventeen-year-olds, Sylvie and Kase exuberantly attended an end-of-year beach party at Palm Beach, where they both lived at the time, when both girls had just finished high school, and the future stretched before them full of endless possibilities and promises. Kase’s nineteen-year-old brother, Tristian, Tristian’s friend, Gabe, and Gabe’s sister, Rachel were also in attendance at the party that fateful night.

Unforeseen by the group of drunk and gung-ho teenagers, events of cataclysmic dimensions took place that night, culminating in the gut-wrenching death of Tristian.

Fast-forward to the present day, and Kase has sent an abjectly surprising, yet stridently beseeching, invitation to Sylvie to attend Kase’s 40th birthday celebrations on the island that Kase (who is by now a phenomenally successful author) owns off the Tasmanian coast. 

Sylvie, working as a house cleaner of deceased estates, is leading a singularly isolated life, living in a flat attached to the back of a cafe in Sydney, where she is surrounded by her beloved books and is meekly hiding away from the world. She suffered a brain injury that summer in 1996 at the Palm Beach party festivities, and has little recollection of that night.

Sylvie reticently attends Kase’s celebrations, where Kase’s husband, Henry, Gabe, his wife, Trina, and their children, Rachel and Kase’s Mum, Fran, are also in attendance. Gabe is by this stage a flamboyantly successful newspaper editor, while Rachel is a well-renowned actress. Surrounded by such ‘high-flyers’, Sylvie feels diminutive in terms of career achievements, and is brought emotionally lower as Kase expresses to her “I have no idea how I’ve published five books and you’re working as a cleaner”.

Sylvie’s spirits are notably lifted, however, by the sturdy presence of the island’s handyman, Holden, who also works as the driver of “the Bruny Island Water Taxi”. Holden, however, is as spiritually damaged as Sylvie knows herself to be, and is, like Sylvie, hiding away from life and the troublesome ghosts of the past, in a fiercely harsh, yet beautifully enchanting, environment away from ‘civilisation’.

Can Sylvie find in the recesses of her mind what really transpired that night at Palm Beach in 1996, and why Kase, her once loyal friend, abandoned Sylvie when she most needed her? Can Sylvie let her guard down enough to allow herself to get to know Holden, a seemingly kindred spirit? And why is it now seemingly apparent that Sylvie’s Mum, Evangeline, and Kase’s Mum, Fran, actually have a shared history as teenage best-friends (despite Evangeline and Fran barely acknowledging each other as adults)?

I cannot speak highly or eloquently enough of “The Beautiful Words”. Vanessa McCausland has written a searingly transcendent and astonishingly mesmerising and captivating novel. The language is bountifully sensitive and stylish, while eloquently delivering to the reader lashings of pathos, healing and hope. We as readers are taken on a journey of peoples’ idealism and at-times dark motives to be in a world where their place is secure. As an aside, being a Tassie lover, I basked in the assiduous descriptions of the unique and hauntingly beautiful Tassie landscape.

I simply can’t recommend this book enough. You will love it!