Emily Brewin’s Hello, Goodbye (Allen & Unwin) is Kill Your Darlings‘ First Book Club pick for July. Hear the author speak about the novel on the latest KYD Podcast, and read an essay by the author explaining the inspiration and background of the book here.
The 1960s was a tumultuous era for many Australians. Across the country, people were awakening to a number of civil injustices, and beginning to react. It’s in the midst of this upheaval that Emily Brewin sets her debut novel, Hello, Goodbye. May Callaghan, seventeen years old and living in the rural Victorian town of Nurrigul, is a big fish in a small pond – while she finds it difficult to display outwardly, she is a young woman with progressive ideas.
Her Ma has been oppressively devoted to religion since suffering a stillbirth several years before, and May struggles to make sense of why Ma lives the way she does. Beyond her recently widowed Aunt Marj, who enjoys experimenting with international cooking and macramé, the only remotely progressive role model May has is her English teacher, Miss Berry – young, free thinking and politically active, and a glimpse into the world beyond Nurrigul.
When May’s boyfriend, Sam, tells her he has put his hand up for the draft, and will be moving to Melbourne, she feels like she’s being left behind. After a single sexual encounter between the two, May falls pregnant, and there’s only so long she can hide it. Eventually, feeling the judgement of her whole community, May relocates to Melbourne, moving into Sam’s share house in Carlton. Even in the city, May finds it impossible to escape society’s expectations of motherhood. Without a ring on her finger, she is a social outcast.
At its core, Hello, Goodbye is a book about mothers.
At its core, Hello, Goodbye is a book about mothers. May’s young motherhood, and her society’s expectations and opinions about what she should be allowed to do, is harrowing. Her Ma’s experience of losing a child and the consequences of this trauma are equally affecting. When May attends her first anti-war meeting, it is for Save Our Sons, a real organisation that was active during the Vietnam War, and hid the drafted.
The Vietnam War was one of the first issues to cause major political dissent in Australia – up to 200,000 people marched in our cities to protest it. Save Our Sons was an integral part of this political action, but I’d never heard about them in detail before reading this book.
Brewin’s novel presents a nuanced portrait of the Vietnam War period in Melbourne, and the anti-war movement that surrounded it, the most affecting parts of which articulate the grey area between critics of the war and those directly involved. James is a Vietnam deserter bouncing between safe houses in Nurrigul, Melbourne and the Blue Mountains. As he relays his Vietnam experiences to a group of young soldiers in a Carlton pub, trying to dissuade them ahead of their deployment, he is approached by a student. She asks if he fought in Vietnam, and when he tells her he did, she calls him ‘baby killer’, and spits on him. This is a venomous act – James’ tour in Vietnam effectively destroyed him, and he most likely suffers from what we would today call PTSD.
Brewin’s novel [articulates] the grey area between critics of the war and those directly involved.
Brewin depicts soldiers and war from a number of angles in this novel – James, the rattled deserter; Sam, hesitant but determined; and his brash mates, itching to fight for their country. Then there are the members of an older generation – veterans of World War II and Korea, such as May’s father. He is a man who suffers quietly, often disappearing into the night only to return, wordlessly, hours later.
Choosing to write about Australia’s past is no simple task – ours is a history filled with injustice that still rebounds – but Brewin is a respectful storyteller. Sam’s housemate Clancy, is a young Aboriginal man from Western Australia with an anger beneath his skin that ‘makes him tick’. Through Clancy, Brewin acknowledges the Indigenous land rights movements of the 1960s, as well as the unimaginable pain suffered by the Stolen Generation. Clancy is empathetic, articulate, and most importantly, on his own journey. Brewin does not gloss over this important part of our history, but is aware that it is not her story to tell.
Ours is a history filled with injustice that still rebounds – but Brewin is a respectful storyteller.
With this novel, Brewin shows her readers a changing Australia. It was an era where people were beginning to find their voices, or in some cases, make those voices clearer. May’s story is emotionally engaging and an important account of one of the many ugly aspects of Australian history, but what makes this novel shine is its depiction of the many changes Australia went through at this point in time, changes which Brewin articulates through her characterisation.
Many of the characters in this novel are undergoing awakenings – May is awakened to the choices offered by cosmopolitan Melbourne; Clancy to his right to anger over the horrendous treatment of Indigenous Australians by colonial invaders; Aunt Marj to a life beyond mainstream culture (and meat and three veg). People like Clancy, May and Marj lay the foundations for many of the great Australian political movements of the 20th century. They, and Brewin, remind us we shouldn’t take anything for granted, and that change is always possible.