Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Marion Halligan, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Goodbye Sweetheart’ by Marion Halligan

Goodbye Sweetheart by Marion Halligan

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 289 pages; 2015.

For a novel largely about death, Marion Halligan’s Goodbye Sweetheart is a surprisingly light and delicious read, the perfect treat for this past Bank Holiday weekend.

A man with many faces

It tells the tale of William Cecil, a well-to-do lawyer in his early sixties, who succumbs to a heart attack and drowns in the swimming pool of his local gym. His unexpected death has repercussions on those who loved him best: his wife, two ex-wives, an adult son, an adult daughter and a teenage daughter, a mistress and an older brother.

This set-up immediately suggests a narrative ripe for farce, but Halligan keeps the humour relatively restrained. Though the story is not without its comic moments, everyone’s too nice and too well-behaved to really stir things up. The author, it seems, is more interested in exploring the impact of William’s death on the people in William’s family, as well as the many different faces — father, lover, husband, sibling, bon vivant — he showed to different people.

Of course, the person most immediately effected is his current wife, Lynette (or “Linnet” as William so cutely called her, after the singing bird), but she doesn’t grieve as expected. She feels betrayed by her husband’s early demise because it means she needs to take time off from her very successful business, a shop selling kitchenware, which she set up with her friend Janice. But she feels more betrayed by his betrayal when his mistress, Barbara, turns up on the doorstep to offer her condolences. She drowns herself in an endless amount of wine  (there’s a lot of wine in this book, it must be said, and it’s usually accompanied by food, whether fish and chips, or great amounts of French cheese and grapes — it made this reader very thirsty!) and then announces there will be no funeral.

But all of William’s immediate family, who have gathered in the marital home, often travelling great distances to do so (his son, Ferdie, for instance has flown all the way from London, where he resides), have other ideas: they need some kind of ceremony to say goodbye. And it is to William’s quietly spoken brother, Jack, that this task falls.

A joyous read

To describe Goodbye Sweetheart as “frothy” would do it a disservice, but there’s something about the quality of the writing — restrained but sensual, and always with an eye to the senses of sight, touch and taste — that makes it feel less weighty than one might expect for a book about such a serious subject. But Halligan’s deft, light touch makes this an almost joyous read. And despite the themes of death, grief, family and betrayal at its heart, the story is completely free of pity, sentiment — and judgement.

Even when writing about Barbara, William’s mistress, whom one could so easily cast as the “demon”, Halligan’s portrait is well-rounded and empathetic. Indeed, Barbara’s situation is drawn with great sensitivity, seeing as she, herself, is grieving for the loss of a child many years earlier. And her reaction to William’s death is perhaps more pronounced than anyone else’s.

I particularly liked the chapter devoted to Jack’s back story, which reveals how very different he is to his younger brother. Unlike William, he remains devoted and monogamous to his late wife, Rosamund. The tale of their marriage is sweet and touching, as indeed, is this entire novel.

Goodbye Sweetheart is available in the UK in Kindle edition only. It will be published in paperback in the US and Canada on 1 October. Get your order in now!

This is my 36th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 24th for #AWW2016.

Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, Marion Halligan, Publisher, Setting, short stories

‘Valley of Grace’ by Marion Halligan

ValleyOfGrace

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 248 pages; 2009.

Valley of Grace, the latest novel by Australian author Marion Halligan,  is one of the most exquisitely designed  books I’ve had the pleasure of reading — and holding — in a long, long time. It’s slightly wider than your normal literary novel (15.2cm, as opposed to the more regular 12.8cm), has fold-in covers and is typeset in a beautiful font, PastonchiMT.

The cover image of a Parisian streetscape, complemented by a gold border, is from Getty Images and the cover design is by Sandy Cull. It recently won the Best Designed Literary Fiction Book at the 58th Annual Book Design Awards announced in Sydney. A well deserved award, in my humble opinion, because for me, the look and feel of this book only enhanced my reading experience of it. I can’t help but think that with the advance of digital books, this kind of experience — taking joy in the beauty of an object — will be lost forever.

But does that all matter, when it’s the content upon which we should judge a book? Fortunately, Valley of Grace delivers on the inside as much as it delivers on the outside. Indeed, it’s a gorgeous story, written in the most exquisite (am I using that word too much?) prose that makes for an entirely effortless read.

The book is marketed as a novel, but like many books I’ve been reading lately, it’s actually a series of interwoven short stories featuring characters that knock and rub against one another throughout the narrative. The framework which ties them all together is modern day Paris, which comes alive in Halligan’s pitch-perfect descriptions of buildings and streetscapes, little cafes and chocolate shops. (She also takes pains to describe food in such a way that if you’re not hungry when reading, you’ll be ravenous afterwards.)

But the real “theme” of this novel, if that is the right word to use, is babies: Halligan’s small cast of characters — all well-to-do, well-heeled Parisians — either hankers after them, cannot have them or does not know what to do with them. There is Fanny Picart, who works in an Antiquarian bookshop (the descriptions of the shop and the books are gorgeous), who marries the man of her dreams but fails to fall pregnant; there is Sabine, who turns a blind eye to her academic husband’s affairs, but is then expected to arrange the termination of any resulting unwanted pregnancies; and there is Luc, the owner of the bookshop, who is in a committed gay relationship but is asked to father a child for a pair of lesbian friends.

Each of these characters has battles of conscience to overcome, as they reconcile their reality with their dreams. For instance, when Fanny, who is so desperate to become a mother, finally realises her ambition (and not in the way she quite planned), she has to come to terms with the fact that having a child does not necessarily result in happiness. And even Sabine, who initially comes across as slightly cold, aloof and foolish (why on earth is she assisting her husband’s libertarian lifestyle when it so clearly makes her unhappy?) has her views turned upside down, when she becomes a kind of secret, substitute mother for one of his “bastard” children.

On the surface, much of this book reads like a beautiful, modern-day fairy tale, but just like the best of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales there are hidden meanings and moral messages if you dig a little deeper. This is a lovely, gentle, easy-to-read book, rich with symbolism, and I thank Sue from Whispering Gums for bringing it to my attention. I urge you to read Sue’s review for another take on the same book.