What I'm Trying to Say is Goodbye

by Lois Simmie
ISBN: 1550502646

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A Review of: What IĈm Trying to Say is Goodbye
by Cindy MacKenzie

The deliciously ironic humor that infuses Lois Simmie's children's books, short story collections and her highly-acclaimed novel, They Shouldn't Make You Promise That, is equally at play in her latest novel, What I'm Trying to Say is Goodbye. But the humor is matched by a solid groundedness that prompts fellow Saskatchewan writer, Sharon Butala to describe the book as "the funniest serious novel ever written in Saskatchewan." Simmie's humour is never superfluous, but dry, and necessary, an easy and integral part of the narrative and a symptom of life, in the way that sensitive, intelligent people are self-conscious of their place in the world, of their time and space.
This is a book bursting with characters and a strong plot line. It could be made into a very entertaining movie. There are enough interesting characters and plenty of action to keep readers (and viewers) intent on every page. And there are lessons about life from which all readers can benefit.
The jaded protagonist, Matthew Kelly, a Sask-atchewan man transplanted to the moderate temperatures of the West Coast, takes us through his quotidian routine as caretaker of Kensington Manor, the apartment building where he lives. The retired newspaperman and recovering alcoholic offers amusingly mordant observations of each of his neighbours while at the same time, revealing his own despondent moodiness as he struggles to come to terms with his life. Although most of the tenants are seniors, Matthew offers us titillating glimpses of their quirky lives.
The AA meetings also provide the author with a setting rich in opportunity for character description and for insights into the central character's psyche. At AA meetings, Matthew finds that he loves the honesty of the group's laughter and the "non-pious spirituality" that obfuscate the darker feelings in the room-feelings of "guilt," "humiliation," and "loneliness." The conflicting mix of emotion compliments the author's style-her steady blending of tragic and comic moments, and the combining of the narrator's vulnerability with a winning feistiness. For instance, Matthew achieves an important insight concerning his drinking days: "With some surprise he's discovered he felt lonelier when he drank, even with [his wife] Delia near, than he does now; an existential loneliness just this side of despair that had nothing to do with being alone. Words fail him when he tries to describe that feeling, but people nod when he flounders trying. They know."
The comic voice is difficult to sustain, and I can't say enough about how pleasingly Simmie's humour infuses her narrative and her characters' words. The divorced Matthew wrestles with the housework on his own, vacuuming with "the Beast", and pondering his relationship with it: "Matthew does not have a good rapport with vacuum cleaners. Delia took the diabolical old Filthy Queen with her and good riddance. In a weak moment at home with a wicked hangover, he once let in a Filter Queen salesman who scattered elephant bullets all over the living room, zapping them up with such a clang and clatter he bought the damn thing just to get rid of him. And because they were always shooting elephants in the living room and missing, of course." In another comedic moment, Matthew finds himself remembering the lines of a familiar poem and has to laugh: "The grave's a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace.' Oh lovely. In what forgotten chamber of his addled brain was that cheery little couplet stored?"
Simmie keeps the reader engaged by weaving a plot full of sympathy-arousing predicaments: Sam, Matthew's grandson, is looking to his grandfather to bail him out of his miserable home life. His mother is sick with pills, deceived by a second husband, a Bible-thumper, who pulls his very reluctant stepson out of school in order to administer a rigid home education. His grandson's struggles offer Matthew an opportunity for redemption by helping, as they say in pop psychology, to break the cycle' of addictive behaviour. The events contributing to the turmoil in Sam's life drive the reader to a page-turning frenzy.
The title points to the novel's central theme: Matthew's inability to absorb the painful losses that make up his existence. In the time that he spends reflecting on his situation, he comes to realize that "it feels a lot like grieving, all this thinking. For Delia, the love of his life. For his father, gone so long. And for his old friend, Booze, who could always be counted on to make it all go away." His deep-seated remorse for past actions can only be alleviated by bidding goodbye to the one he loves-his Delia, who has found a new life with the dapper Nick. Matthew knows that in order to say that reluctant farewell to the woman he loves, he must "start accepting life as it really is, not as he wants it to be. Admonishing himself, he emphasizes the necessity for the task at hand: "It's called reality, stupid."
The author's pragmatism also grounds the plot in reality. The plot does not turn melodramatic, and things don't turn out entirely happy ever after' since Simmie will be the first to admit that, "When you get right down to it, life is unutterably sad." But this author's characters and her own incisive humour balance the darkness with the joys of life. Matthew realizes that he must "say goodbye" to any hope of reuniting with his ex-wife Delia, and that he must come to terms with his current realities-his age, his past, his family's situation. This is a plot-driven novel not vying for literary analysis, but it is a sophisticated example of its genre. Simmie's effortless way of moving from the comic to the more serious events in each character's life; her counterpoising the sacrifices and painful losses with the revelations and joys of human existence, made reviewing this book a joy. I highly recommend this delightful book for, among other things, what it might teach about your own life!

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