Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 29, 2015

Goodbye Sweetheart (2015), by Marion Halligan

Goodbye Sweetheart Since her earliest work, Marion Halligan has always been very good at writing about journeys of the self. In her latest novel, Goodbye Sweetheart, there are multiple characters struggling with shifts in their self-perception after the death of William Cecil, a thrice-married lawyer who has a heart-attack in a swimming pool, and drowns.

This man’s extended family comprises the three wives and their one child each; a brother; and an aunt.  It turns out that there was a lover too, and a taste for online pornography.  (That’s not a spoiler, it’s signalled on the back-cover blurb).  Like the characters, the reader has to learn to separate the sleaze from the man – how else to explain why these strong, interesting women fell for him, each one thinking that she was the One.

Wife No 3 is Lynette, part-owner of a foodie equipment shop called Batterie de Cuisine.  She met William when she was working in catering; they frolicked in the boardroom and he married her, producing Erin,  in her early teens when William dies.  Lynette seems a nice woman, welcoming Ferdie from Marriage No 2 into her home and offering him light and laughter that he doesn’t get at home where wife No 2, Helen, is still after all this time moodily grieving for her lost marriage.  Ferdie comes home for the funeral from London where his own relationship with Berenice is struggling to accommodate his intellectual needs; and so too comes Aurora, forty-something child of Marriage No 1 to Nerys, alone among the wives for having left William instead of the other way round.  Nerys left to join the Orange People (remember that strange 1970s cult?)   – but despite the hippie upbringing deplored by Helen, Aurora has grown up to be an investment banker and is, at the time of the death, trying to have a baby with her same-sex partner, with the generous help of a Polish count.

Secrets and lies, and hidden predilections.  William’s nice, humble brother, Jack, who shared a boyhood by the seaside, calls him by the familiar, Bill.  Barbara, The Other Woman, distances him by calling him by his surname, Cecil.   The others call him William, except for Erin, who calls him ‘daddy’.   William is always wittily quoting other people’s words, investing time in gathering a repertoire of erudite quotations, but masking truths that matter in his relationships.  Who was this man, and how can his women and his children reconcile the betrayals with the man they thought they knew?


Halligan’s exploration of grief and resilience shows the halting steps along the way, and the perils of repression.  Barbara, who lost her only child in an accident, casts out her husband and her memories, compartmentalises her life and creates a brittle new persona out of satin gowns.  Jack, who lost his wife to cancer, lives a life of quiet dignity on the coast.  Helen grieves for her marriage while William lives, but finds herself liberated by his death. Lynette, for whom his betrayal is most raw, drinks a lot and makes rash decisions.  She does not want to have a funeral where people celebrate the life of the departed because William is not at all the man she thought he was.

Surprisingly, it’s Aurora’s ‘new age’ partner who talks the most sense:

Beauty is a comfort, said Acacia.  William was part of your life, of your being.  You deny him at your peril.

Deny him.

Yes, said Acacia.  You deny him.  You say you will have no ceremony, and for why?  To punish him.  But you cannot punish the dead.  You can only punish yourself.  And that is not a good thing to do. (p. 241)

(BTW this excerpt illustrates the non-use of speech marks.  I don’t usually find this irritating as many people apparently do, but it’s not always successful in this book and sometimes the flow of reading is disrupted by having to re-read to differentiate between speech, thought and silence.)

William’s is not the only death.  There are deaths, and a near death, and an impending death.  Pepita, William’s grand old aunt in London has a dignified, fulfilling old age as a single woman, symbolising hope for the bereaved who fear loneliness, but she is planning her last moments.

Recently, I read Brenda Niall’s superb biography of Daniel Mannix, the politically powerful archbishop of Melbourne who lived into his 90s but left no trace of his personal life behind.  (See my review).  Halligan’s novel is a cautionary tale about the way secrets can surface after death, but it’s also a meditation on death as one of life’s rich experiences: The joy of grief.  The gift of sorrow, which without love you could never know. (p.241)

As always, Halligan punctuates events with lyrical descriptions of artworks, books, porcelain and glassware; gardens and flowers; fabrics and design.  It’s not a plot-driven novel, but there are events that will shock, and more than one that warrants serious contemplation…

Author: Marion Halligan
Title: Goodbye Sweetheart
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2015
ISBN: 9781760111298
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books.


Fishpond: Goodbye Sweetheart
Or good bookshops everywhere.



  1. I think I’d like this–all the x wives left afterwards–sounds like solid material. This isn’t available here yet.


    • A very contemporary story.
      I wonder what the etiquette is for ex-husbands/wives at funerals…


  2. I know of a few ex-wives who have attended funerals of their ex-husbands. I have read the book and always enjoy Halligan’s writing style. However, I didn’t like this novel as much as her other novels, especially The Fog Garden. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters in Goodbye Sweetheart, Jack was the best.


    • I suppose it depends on whether the couples have been able to remain friends. But I wonder whether the Ex should be invited? Wait to be invited? Just turn up?
      Jack was a nice fellow, wasn’t he? And so totally different to William, as brothers can be. But I also liked Barbara, bravely making the best of things but #no spoilers but so isolated. I would have liked to know more about why she had no female friends to support her but the book is not really about her, it’s about the different parts of William’s life.
      BTW what did you think about all the wine? I couldn’t tell whether all those endless glasses of wine were meant to be about the good life going on or about people trying to numb their feelings at the time. Or is it, today, just normal to drink that much?


  3. I did think about the wine – lol. The answer to everyone woes. I didn’t think it was to numb their feelings, but I do think you might be right – all about the good life. hope people don’t drink like that all time.


    • I like a glass of wine as much as anyone, but not that much!


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