I Came to Say Goodbye is an Australian novel by journalist Caroline Overington, and it’s fair to say that it’s a novel about absent mothers. This is not something that becomes immediately clear, neither are the reasons behind the incident of the stolen baby that’s described in the prologue to the book and on the front and back cover. In fact the explanation behind that shocking event is not given until the end of the story, and I think the focus on this aspect is misleading. Going in I thought I was in for a sentimental, melodramatic drama, and, for more than half of the book at least, it turned out not to be true.
Instead, the book opens with the voice of Med Atley, a typical Aussie old timer, who’s writing down the story of his marriage and growth of his family as an official statement to a judge, for reasons that remain unclear until the end of the novel. His marriage was a short, unhappy one, stemming from an unplanned pregnancy. His wife abandons him and the family after giving birth to the third baby Donna-Faye, affectionately nicknamed ‘Fat’, leaving Med to look after the family single handedly. Donna-Faye soon grows up and moves in with a violent, drug addicted loser with whom she soon has a baby and Med is understandably less than pleased.
Although written down this does seem to have some echoes of an episode of Jeremy Kyle Down Under, it’s genuinely more substantial than that. Med’s narration is honest and believable, when at first I disliked him for restricting his wife from ever going to work or studying and uncaringly getting her pregnant repeatedly, I then felt sorry for him having to endure the harrowing court case that occurs around midway through the book, when his grandson shows signs of Shaken Baby Syndrome (doesn’t take much to know who the culprit is) and is taken away by social services. This part of the book contained for me the most effective scenes, as a result of the realistic and frustrating descriptions of the bureaucracy of the court and social services procedures, which Overington is familiar with, having worked on child neglect and abuse cases whilst working as a journalist. Melodrama is avoided because of the focus on this, the impotence of Med and his daughter and the mundane evil that is her boyfriend. It’s gripping and sad, and you get the impression that Overington’s inspiration for these parts are drawn heavily from cases she covered in real life.
It’s after the end of the court case that the book seems to shift and move into the more sensational fare that I had sort of expected from the beginning. Without going into detail, Donna Faye gives birth to a second child which is again taken away from her, this time due to her increasing mental instability, and through some unfortunate events this builds to the tragic climax that opens the book. It is here sadly that the book seems to lose its grounding. While the theme of lost mothers is pondered on by Med in the closing chapters, when he wonders whether the loss of her mother led to Donna-Faye’s damaged identity as a mother herself, it is overshadowed by a rather contrived ending that hurriedly reintroduces a previous character that had otherwise not been mentioned for the latter half of the book, but appears and seemingly rights all the family’s woes. It rubs badly against the previous chapters.
The book is still gripping despite this however, and you cannot fault melodrama if it still makes you turn the page. Still the strongest parts of I Came to Say Goodbye are when it’s at its most realistic, and it leaves you wishing that Overington had been able to continue that to the last page.