This doesn’t happen to me often but there is a moment in this book when my jaw dropped open, like a scene from a cheesy, poorly-acted TV movie, and stayed open and I couldn’t close it. I had to cover my mouth with my hand until the ability to move my face returned to within my control. There aren’t too many books I can say that about. There aren’t too many things in life in general I can say that about.
I Came to Say Goodbye is the second Caroline Overington book I’ve read. I was extremely impressed with the first one, Sisters of Mercy, and you can read my review of that book, too. I keep doing this thing lately, which is being in the middle of a long and difficult book and thinking I’ll just read something else for some light relief and then choosing, unknowingly, to read a book that might be less dense but offers no relief at all.
This is the story of the Atley family. Med, short for Meredith – it’s a boy’s name, too, he insistently tells the reader – is the main narrator. He lives in the country town where he was brought up and gets his brother’s girlfriend, Pat, pregnant while his brother is away fighting in Vietnam and exploring the Vietnamese girls (“They’re all the same,” he writes in a card he sends back to his family). So Med and Pat get married. Kat is born, then Paul.
But Pat isn’t the motherly type and sends Med off to get a vasectomy to make sure there aren’t any more. They don’t wait the required six weeks before having sex and Pat falls pregnant again. Another daughter, Donna-Faye, is born. Med unthinkingly calls her Fat because it rhymes with Pat and Kat. When Fat is two, Pat literally says, “To hell with this,” and walks out on her family. They never see her again.
Kat, the smart child and a teenager by now, is sent off to boarding school in Sydney. Paul drops out of school and heads off to seek his fortune mining for opals at Lightning Ridge. And Med is left to raise a little girl by himself. When she’s fifteen, Fat takes up with a twenty-five year old, a clear loser but what can Med say about it without alienating her completely? He tries to help out, he tries to make the best of it. And when Fat has a baby, all he can think is, “I’m a grandfather!”
But when the baby, Seth, is taken to hospital at fourteen weeks of age, vomiting and lifeless, and then removed from Fat and her partner’s care while the Department of Community Services waits for him to die, everything spirals into a neverending path of courts and caseworkers and mental health services and streams of people trying to do with right thing even though the result is always the same, always the wrong result.
Caroline Overington writes at the start of the book that she has worked for seven years as a journalist and for “better or worse, my round has been child neglect and child murder” and that she wrote this book to honour the people who work so hard and sometimes so fruitlessly to stop it from happening. I don’t know how she could have done it for seven years. After seven days, possibly after seven hours, I would have curled up in a ball and refused to go back to that job ever again.
But she has done a brilliant job at providing amazing insight into situations that everyday people must find themselves in and that the rest of us hope like hell we will never be in. Simply because of taking up with the wrong man, thinking that having a baby might make everything better, having that child taken away, fighting in the courts to get your own child back, the heartbreak of losing, the ways in the which the authorities “help” or try to. This book is full of the people we see in the street, a little shabby, a little uneducated, people we judge and avoid and think, “I’m nothing like them at all.” And she has made them real people, not just caricatures, not just people holding hands up to shield their faces as news cameras chase them down the street after they leave the courts.
At the start, when Med starts writing a letter to a judge and he goes right back to the beginning to when he was born basically, I thought, “Oh, God, what a silly premise. Why couldn’t she have just written a novel?” But I quickly got over it because it is so well written, the story so perfectly revealed, dropping bombshell after bombshell after bombshell.
As I read and came across plenty of spelling and grammatical errors, I was taking points off in my head but I can’t give this book anything other than five stars. Because the story is perfect. The characters are perfect. The writing is perfect. The editor was responsible for everything else and I can’t blame the writer. I don’t want to punish her or this book because of those errors, which can be easily fixed. I can’t say the same about a book where the story, the characters and the writing are just okay but it’s all done with perfect spelling and grammar.
But be warned that this book will knock you for six. You will want to hate and blame and rage against somebody for what happens but in the end there really isn’t anyone left to direct those feelings at. Just a family, like everyone else’s, trying to make the best of their lives.
It will stay with you long after. It will make you want to hug your kids harder. And it will make you want to read more Caroline Overington books once you’ve caught your breath again.
*First published on Goodreads 8 May 2016