Book Review: The Deed by Susannah Begbie

Four siblings must learn to work together like their livelihoods depend on it.

The Deed by first-time author Susannah Begbie has the makings of an Australian classic. A family drama set on a rural property, a race against time, and a scheming antagonist all combine to make it a rich, rewarding and very engaging read.

Cattle farmer Tom Edwards has worked hard his entire life and now that he’s facing the end of it alone on his 10,000 acres of land, he decides to punish his four children, who have each let him down in their own way. He hastily re-writes his will, adding a posthumous prank.  

The book opens as the adult children roll into their hometown of Coorong like tumbleweeds: Christine, the uptight wife of a surgeon who sees herself as only one who gets anything done; Dave, the son and heir, who runs a failing property development company, and is relying on the inheritance to save his bacon; Jenny, whose hidden secret has made her nervy and fastidious; and Sophie, the unruly youngest who was both her father’s most cherished and most disappointing child.

Buy The Deed by Susannah Begbie at QBD Books.

As they assemble for the will reading, their individual plans are upended when the local lawyer Vince Barton reveals they must work together to build their father’s coffin, or the entire estate will pass into his own greedy hands. 

The challenge Tom Edwards set for his children was done out of spite, but ultimately, it offers a chance for redemption. The children, however, are absorbed in their own personal dramas so there’s a question of whether they will even attempt the build the coffin. The time limit of four days propels the story forward and gives the book a sense of urgency.

The chapters are told from different perspectives, so the reader is able to view the Edwards family from all angles. Past traumas are revealed. Secrets and motivations are uncovered. The threads of each Edwards child, and Tom’s own life, are expertly woven together to create a picture of a complicated family doing their best under tough conditions.

Susannah has built distinctive, believable characters. Dave Edwards, with his chip on his shoulder, is particularly vivid, and the debt that threatens to smother him raises the stakes considerably. Sophie is so real and alive you sometimes want to smack her.

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Funny and heart-breaking in turn, The Deed prods the wounds left by ungrateful children and unfeeling parents. This heavier side of family life is buoyed by affection, hope and humour. The relationships feel real. Anybody who has ever attempted to manage family members for a group project will appreciate the Edwards’ siblings’ frustrations.

The farm itself, Ellersley, is so alive as to almost feel like a fifth family member. Susannah expertly conjuries up the sweltering heat, the parched soil of the farm and the sweat that prickles the characters’ bodies. You can practically hear the blowflies and feel the harsh bush sun burning your skin as you turn the pages.

Susannah won the 2022 Richell Prize which recognises the first three chapters of a manuscript and provides a year of mentoring. Her three chapters stood out in a field of 700 entries and it’s easy to see why. The Deed cracks along at a ripping page. She put it through several rigorous edits over ten years and it shows.

The finished story is polished like the surface of a high-quality coffin lid. The Deed tugs you into the world of the Edwards children and doesn’t let you go until the final page.

Buy The Deed here and read our author interview with Susannah Begbie.

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