Sunday, April 19, 2015

My launch of Goodbye Sweetheart – by Marion Halligan – at Paperchain Bookshop, Canberra – April 14, 2015

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are gathered.

For a writer, the so-called literary world is made up, as are many worlds, of friends and enemies. Marion and me, we are friends. You don’t invite your enemies to launch your books. Goodbye Sweetheart is Marion’s twenty-second book, and it’s the first one I have had the honour of launching. I can tell you this is a great pleasure.

Margaret Atwood says she thinks that all narrative writing is motivated by a fear and fascination with mortality. I agree with her. This doesn't mean the details of the plots are necessarily going to focus on death. But sometimes they do. The publisher’s advertising for Goodbye Sweetheart begins by telling you the main character has just drowned, that the novel is going to explore the mourning of his family. And clearly there is going to be plenty of that other important topic, sex. In fact the two key subjects of fiction – sex and death – are entwined in the title Goodbye Sweetheart.
The blue, blue cover of the book is soothing, until you connect the shadow at the top with the information about the drowning. The story begins and ends with water – William drowns in the luxury pool of a fancy hotel, and ultimately his ashes are scattered in the sea, becoming ‘part of the shredding of the water on the rocks below’. When I talk fancy here, I’m quoting the book. His son and one of his wives then watch the moon on the water – a benign and hope-filled image that lulls the reader as the book is closed.

Novels often pose a question for the reader. Goodnight Sweetheart asks not only how you would behave if you were part of William’s family, but how, in your heart, you would mourn.

The narrator suggests that there are enough births, deaths and marriages, enough anguish here for half a dozen nineteenth century novels. This is a bit of a challenge for the writer. But Marion is up to it of course. The rhythms of her sentences, the precision of her words. One of the wives is advised to seek the joy of grief, the gift of sorrow, but she thinks these are just the threads of words all plaited together making a pattern but having no meaning. Later on she realizes that the true thing is that William loved her, and this will always be true. So there is the ‘true thing’, the good thing, the meaning.  And fiction may be motivated by death, but its aim is usually to seek out meaning. To unravel the tangles of lives and to present the reader with a pattern that makes some sense of it all. Another character says ‘Meaning is what we make for ourselves.’ Marion takes a pretty big cast of characters and weaves them – I am inclined to say she stitches them up – into a pattern, and the meaning – the true thing – emerges and stays in the reader’s mind.

Now this is getting to sound rather philosophical and serious – have I forgotten about the sex and death thing? No. I have not. The story unfolds in present-day Australia, in the domestic lives of an extended and muddled family. Early on, a character points out that some of the great traditions of literature had a domestic beginning. This story is going to be domestic, not epic or anything like that. But it will frequently spin the focus round to someone such as Milton or Browning or, in particular George Eliot. For one of William’s sons is a great admirer of Middlemarch. The narrative refers back to the dense narratives of myth and poetry and fiction.

A lovely thing, speaking of the domestic again, is the way the titles of the chapters keep bringing you back to the very ordinary everyday. Like no chapter headings you have ever seen. There’s a list of them in the front – ‘The gym is busy’ – ‘Lynette plans a sale’ – ‘Jack goes fishing’. They play so sweetly against the grand themes of death and love and betrayal. Love might be the true thing, but the fabric of everyday life is made up of things such as ‘Helen comes home late’ – and ‘Aurora drinks vodka’. Watch out for ‘Barbara drinks the last of the wine’, though. Of course, people are often drinking things – and eating nice stuff too. Marion never lets a good story get in the way of a fine meal.

Now I want to talk about coincidence. It is such a joyful thing that happens really quite frequently in everyday life. It also happens quite a bit in literature – think of the works of Dickens, for one. It isn’t always easy to make coincidence smooth and acceptable in fiction. But at the end of Goodbye Sweetheart there is a delightful one, and it is part of the melody of the novel, is a graceful gift offered to one of the nicest characters. It will put a smile on your face. Not only is there love, there is hope. Even the title of the chapter in which it happens is a joy – suggesting as it does that the young man is at last on the right path – it’s called ‘Ferdie takes the bus’.

There are also a few ghosts involved along the way, and a rich vein of fascinating short narratives, one in particular that appealed to me – the tale, legend, of a boat that came, once upon a time, into the bay at Eden. It had picked up smallpox in India when it took on a cargo of silk. The infected silk was buried with the bodies of the dead. Then guess what - people dug up the infected silk and sold it, and the ladies of the town made it into dresses. The complex everyday lives of the main characters are threaded with mysterious narratives such as that one. And these narratives form a subtle, dark undertow to the everyday problems of the characters.  

So while the surfaces of lives are followed in meticulous detail, from the clothes people wear to the food they eat, the wines they drink, the glasses they drink from, the landscapes they contemplate – a darker undertow works away in the depths.
So, William dies. His wife, his two ex-wives, his children, his mistress – I think I’ve got it covered – gradually gather, revealing their own stories, discovering parts of the story of William, until William is ashes in the sea, and the moon moves across the water.
You are going to love reading this novel. You are going to love having it alongside all the rest of Marion’s books. It is my honour and joy to launch it on its way to the open arms of your lucky bookshelves.

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