Book Shelf: An interview with Caroline Overington, author of I Came To Say Goodbye
Journalist Caroline Overington's new book, I Came To Say Goodbye, explores the messiness of humanity – the inexplicable, contemptible and shameful – as seen through the eyes of Med Atley, a simple, decent sort of bloke dealt more than his fair share of struggles.
"He reminds me a lot of good, solid, honest men I've known in my life," says Overington of her protagonist. "I tried to think of what they'd say, if their little girls got themselves in trouble. Then, too, reason I went with him as the narrator, is that I wanted to explore the relationship between a father and his daughter. We say a lot about mums and daughters, and sisters, and husbands-and-wives, but the father-daughter relationship so important, and from such a young age."
Left by his feminist wife, Pat, Med picks himself up by his socks and gets on with raising his two teenage children and new baby girl, Donna-Faye (aka "Fat"). Try as he might to create stability and order, Med cannot predict nor cope with the challenges of his little girl's upbringing: her socialisation issues, her weight, her deadbeat boyfriend and, ultimately, her mental illness. Meanwhile, his older children, Kat and Blue, have flown the coop. The novel, written for the most part in a letter from Med to a family court judge, seeks to address why families fall apart.
"Siblings who once shared the same bath water, who learnt to ride bikes together, who haven't spoken for years... how does that happen?" asks Overington. "Sometimes it's money, but often it's more subtle and delicate than that – lives gone off in opposite directions, with scorched hearts all around, as is the case here, where the children haven't spoken to their mother for years, not even when they made her a grandmother."
What transpires is a heartbreaking, captivating story of a father doing the best he can without the support or knowledge he needs, which ultimately leads to a turn of events you wouldn't wish on any family. It's a reflection of a society in which too many people fall through the cracks; the repercussions so much worse than the cost of plugging the gaps.
The novel has allowed Overington to canvass issues such as foster care, adoption, child protection, Shaken Baby Syndrome and mental illness, as well as family dysfunction, delving into complex relationships while laying aside journalistic notions of objectivity and the strictures of news reporting.
"It's become near impossible for journalists to get the information they need to be honest with the public," says Overington. "When a child dies, for example, or some other crime is committed, journalists can't speak to the doctors or the paramedics or the police or the schools or the social workers ... all the information has to come through a central media unit, and a lot of information is kept hidden. It's an awful situation."
Overington will be familiar to those of you who read The Australian's Monday media section (she's the author of Media Diary) or who have followed her Walkley Award winning journalism. Her first novel, Ghost Child, was met with critical acclaim. As a mother of two children, it strikes me that she has become an advocate; speaking for those who don't have a voice, but she insists it's more about the public's right to know. Still, there is a streak of social justice that runs through her work.
"I have long felt lucky to work as a journalist. It's all I ever wanted to do. There are frustrations that go along with it, and I haven't always conducted myself as well as I should have, but I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to do something I love for a living... Whenever I see a young person with a sense of outrage, I think: you'd make a good reporter."
While she may receive accolades for her work, Overington pays a poetic tribute to those at the coal face of crime and injustice. "Whenever I am asked about whether journalism is difficult, I answer honestly, and say no, it is not anywhere near as difficult as it must be, to be a police officer, and first on the scene of a tragedy; and nowhere near as difficult as it must be, to be the parademic, trying to pump life into a dying child; and nowhere near as difficult as it must be, to be the surgeon conducting the autopsy on a five year old boy; and nowhere near as difficult as it must be, to be the rescue services who pulled up the body of a child from a dam. I come along, hours and days and weeks and sometimes years later, grateful that time has done it's thing, and smoothed a path for me to get to to work."
And we are all the beneficiaries of the end result. This book can't not awaken your humanity.
I Came To Say Goodbye, $34.95, published by Random House Australia, is out today.
Learn more about Caroline at CarolineOverington.com.
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