Carmel Bird launches Marion Halligan’s latest at Paperchain

Sometimes blogging brings you little thrills, and I had one a few days ago when Carmel Bird, one of Australia’s literary luminaries, emailed me with the offer to post her launch speech for Marion Halligan’s latest book. Was this out of order she asked? As if! So, I attended the delightful launch, and received the text from Carmel Bird’s hands. Here it is …

Carmel Bird launches Goodbye Sweetheart

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

Marion Halligan, Goodbye Sweetheart

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

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.

Now 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.

– Paperchain Bookshop, Canberra, April 14, 2015

PS Carmel has what she calls a “sleepy blog”, Blue Lotus. She plans to post this speech there also. Do go check her out because there you will find her short story, “When honey meets the air”, which I featured in my review last year of Australian love stories. It’s one of those pieces that has you chuckling, marvelling and puzzling all at once. Carmel’s next book, a collection of short stories titled My hearts are your hearts, will be published by Spineless Wonders later this year.

Marion Halligan’s reponse

No, I don’t have her speech too, but I did make some brief notes! Mostly, of course, she thanked various people – publisher and editors, family, and Carmel. However, she did say a few other things. Responding to Carmel’s comment on chapter titles, she said she has to name, not number, her chapters, because she doesn’t write them in order and needs to recognise them when she comes to shuffling them around! Don’t you love it? I can see why Halligan and Bird are such friends, they such have a wonderfully confident cheekiness about them. (I’m sure you detected some cheekiness in Bird’s speech).

Marion also commented that reading about death isn’t necessarily miserable. Death is something we all have to face up to, some sooner than later, she said (!), so we may as well get used to it. Must say I agree with her. I’m not one to shy away from books that deal with grief and death. I know many people love Joan Didion’s beautiful memoir, The year of magical thinking, but Halligan’s novel, The fog garden, is an equally beautiful book, a novel, about the loss of a loved partner.

Finally, Marion praised the book’s designer, Sandy Cull, who also designed Valley of grace and Shooting the fox. She’s right – I have all three now – and they are all, simply, luminous. It was a delightful launch involving two special Australian writers – and I now have a signed copy of Halligan’s book in my hands, and Bird’s thoughtful speech about this book and fiction in general preserved on my blog for posterity. Thanks Carmel. Thanks Marion.

48 thoughts on “Carmel Bird launches Marion Halligan’s latest at Paperchain

  1. I was at the launch last night. Carmel Bird was wonderful! I am really looking forward to reading the novel. I love Marion Halligan. What a coup to post her speech! Thanks!

    • Thanks Masalajp. Lucky aren’t !? It was a lovely launch wasn’t it? I love Marion Halligan’s work too, and Carmel Bird’s too though I haven’t read much recently besides that short story.

      • I have not read any of Carmel Bird but she was such a character. I must read her work soon. I am enjoying Marion Halligan’s novel. I love that the places are so recognisable. I think I have read every thing that she has written. I am always gob smacked that she lives in our city. Anita 🙂

        • Oh, I knew I should have known who masalajp is! Don’t be gobsmacked Anita … we are a lovely city. Why shouldn’t she be here! (But, secretly, I know what you mean!)

          And sorry I missed you there. It’s such a crowded little space but I love that they do these launches.

        • I left Canberra this morning after three weeks house-sitting – all golden/crimson autumnal tones and delicious freshness – and bus and train north towards Caves Beach/home now nearly finished Marion Halligan’s book – has any other character been represented in so multi-faceted a manner – as is true for us all – different folk to different folks – mirrors of/to the differences of those we know/love- are close to – even to ourselves continually trying to figure out! I think this is my first MH book – it reads more real than real?!!

        • They do, I agree, Anita. I was going to say in responding to Jim, that I don’t remember a lot of book quotes, but one I do comes from her. It’s from Fog Garden as it goes “Read a wise book and lay its balm upon your soul”. I hope that’s exactly it – I think it is. I love it.

        • Yes, the colours are beautiful right now, Jim. If you haven’t read others you have a delight in store. I understand what you mean by “reads more real than real”. She does get to the heart of people. And her sentences are beautiful.

  2. WG: I can’t tell you enough how I appreciate you reviews – as I do those of another reviewer Jonathan SHAW – between the two of you I make more online purchases than I do from the review pages of the two major week-end newspapers (Fairfax/NewsCorp)! Marion Halligan “Goodbye Sweetheart” now in my iPad/Netbook! Thank-you!

    • Thanks Jim, that’s really nice to hear … And it’s great for authors and publishers to know that we amateur bloggers play a role. I read Jonathan too … Love his reviews.

  3. Oh this was wonderful! If I should ever write a book I’d like Carmel to come to the US and say such nice things about it. She doesn’t have to panic, there will probably never be a book, but I loved reading her launch speech. 🙂

  4. Personally, while I am delighted to read of your being recognized by your beloved ‘Australian women writers’ coterie, I believe it would be foolish NOT to ask you to make this post.

      • The first book I read on my holiday! You are right, Sue! What a treat. My first Marion Halligan and it was so very satisfying. How fun to revisit Carmel’s lovely speech again after reading the book. I thought it was beautifully put together.

        • Oh phew, Tara, so glad you liked it. I hope you go on now and read more of her books. And yes, Carmel’s talk is beautifully put together as you say – I’m so glad to have it documented here.

          Sounds like you had a great holiday – travelling and reading?

  5. I have just received the book from the library. I am looking forward to reading it. I have enjoyed all her other novels. At the moment I am house sitting and looking after two poodles, brother and sister. They are very demanding-ball and walks three times a day!

    • Oh, lovely Meg. let me know what you think. It might be a month or so till I get to it, though I’m itching to do so. Wow they sound like demanding poodles … our poodle, who died a couple of years ago now, never bothered us for a walk, ever. She’d go if you offered but wasn’t too fussed about them, and would regularly start looking towards home after you’d been out for a few minutes, though as she got older she seemed to enjoy them a bit more!

  6. Hi Sue, I finished reading Goodbye Sweetheart. It was a good fun read. Halligan is very witty, and also dry. I like her sense of humour. As much as I enjoy her writing style I was not taken with the characters in the book. Jack was the only one I liked and could believe in. It is a novel about death but I found the Fog Garden a better read.

  7. Thank you for introducing me to Marion Halligan’s work, in your blog, I follow your blog regularly via my rss reader, Newsblur. From your blog, I noted, Marion had written 22 books. TWENTY TWO! “Why wasn’t I told!” LOL I found Carmel Bird’s launch speech so interesting, I went off to to get a couple of samples, one of Goodbye Sweetheart and the other for The Fog Garden. I was “gob-smacked” to find there were no reviews for The Fog Garden. WHAT! Hopefully I can make a difference somewhere down the track, after I read the book, and if I enjoy it (I only blog about books I enjoy), by writing a review on amazon and on my book blog.

    • Oh that’s lovely to hear Diane … That you read my blog and it has encouraged you to read some books. It’s so long since I’ve read Fog garden I couldn’t add a proper review, so it would be great if you did so. You might have seen though that I have reviewed Halligan’s previous novel here.

      Interesting decision re only reviewing books that you’ve liked. I understand that. I’m pretty good at avoiding books I won’t enjoy. I don’t love equally every book I read but I do get something of value, some enjoyment out of the books I’ve chosen to read right through to the end. My view is why would I keep reading something that wasn’t offering me anything?

  8. I have both of their books unread on my shelf because I know they must be special. Better get them down and dust them off. Wonderful review as are all of your writings. I think the Age should get you to contribute to their fine book information. You really do Australian literature proud.

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