It’s 1968 and free-thinking country girl May Callaghan’s world is turned upside down when she finds out she’s pregnant to her boyfriend Sam, who is awaiting draft orders. A profoundly moving story of love during a time of great social change, with an ending that will leave you cheering.
May Callaghan is seventeen years old and on her own. At least that’s how it feels.
Her devoutly religious mother and her gentle but damaged father are fighting, and May’s boyfriend, Sam, has left their rural hometown for Melbourne without so much as a backward glance.
When May lies to her parents and takes the train to visit Sam at his shared house in Carlton, her world opens wide in glorious complexity. She is introduced to his housemates, Clancy, an indigenous university student, and Ruby, a wild bohemian. With their liberal thinking and opposition to the war in Vietnam, they are everything that May’s strict Catholic upbringing should warn her against.
May knows too well the toll that war has taken on her father, and the peace movement in the city has a profound effect on her. For a while, May’s future burns bright. But then it begins to unravel, and something happens to her that will change her life forever.
Set in the 1960s, Hello, Goodbye tells the story of May, seventeen years old, in her final year of high school, in love with her older boyfriend who has been conscripted to go to Vietnam, Catholic, and pregnant. This is historical fiction, yet very much modern history, set in an era of rapid change that still lives in the memories of many Australians today. The main topic of this novel, forced adoption, is one I find extremely interesting but difficult to fathom. Prior to reading Hello, Goodbye, it wasn’t something I knew a whole lot about, having only ever read one other novel in which it was a sub-topic and then bits and pieces of factual info over time through news stories.
Emily Brewin has done a fine job with articulating the imposed shame and the harrowing processes associated with forcing young un-wed mothers to give up their babies. Inspired by her own aunt’s experiences, what May endures and is subject to within Hello, Goodbye has a sound ring of truth to it that affected me deeply. Between 1951 and 1975 an estimated 150,000 babies were given up for adoption in Australia, and the majority of mothers who relinquished these children were young and un-married. Yet it is the circumstances surrounding these adoptions, the forced nature of them, that is most upsetting to contemplate. Young women, targeted by medical staff, labelled, bullied, drugged, denied the right to see their own babies, kept from visitors and any form of support, the promise of it all being over once they signed a pre-filled out form. It’s astonishing that it went on for so long, much less that it even was allowed to happen at all. Through May’s experiences, Emily brought this all to life in an vividly authentic manner, and the end result is an extremely important story.
It’s interesting to note when reading novels about social and cultural change, how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time. Although sometimes, it can have the reverse effect if we can see very little progress at all. I found it quite ridiculous how the entire responsibility for not falling pregnant rested on the shoulders of young women, yet they were not given instructions on how to obtain birth control and what different methods were even available to them, rather simply ordered to abstain. Yet, when they did fall pregnant, the entire responsibility for that also rested onto their shoulders. It was their shame, their problem, and they needed to bear the consequences and deal with it. Oh, to have been a young man back then! But what of the mothers of these young women? I simply cannot envisage myself disowning my daughter because she had fallen pregnant accidentally, partly on account of me not ever telling her how not to! Lucky I am not a mother in the 1960s. Surely, despite an overtly religious tendency, some mothers would have taken it upon themselves to better educate and empower their daughters privately? If not, I am saddened even more about this piece of history. What a cycle to perpetuate. Specifically with regards to Hello, Goodbye, Emily depicted May’s mother is a most authentic fashion. I was so disappointed in her for most of the novel, she seemed so ‘typical’ and fatalistic, yet she showed her true self in the end, and it gave me hope, that there were other mothers like her around back then for real, standing up for their daughters before it was too late. Sadly, I think they might have been in the minority though, given those abovementioned statistics.
In terms of the era and setting, I think Emily did particularly well at bringing to life a small rural Victorian town in the 1960s. I grew up in a small rural Victorian town in the 1980s, yet it still had a ring of familiarity to me, that way of life not so unchanged twenty years on.
I really loved May as a main character. She was young, and consequently flawed, yet she was a character on the edge, traversing that line between girl and woman, her pregnancy forcing her straight into womanhood yet the demands of society keeping her firmly in place as a girl; powerless yet burning with a need to break free. She was a young woman teetering on the brink of social change, intelligent yet unsure of her own worth, full of beliefs that challenged her to the core and unbalanced everything she had known previously. Her relationship with Sam was in many ways probably quite typical of the era but there was a simmering undercurrent of tension throughout that was magnified by their young ages, May’s pregnancy, and Sam being called up for Vietnam. Emily handled all of these threads so well, weaving a tight story with clear lines of cause and effect. It was with some skill that she merged the issue of forced adoption with opposition to the Vietnam War.
Written in first person present tense, there were many profound moments that gave me reason to pause and swallow down tears, particularly as May was so young. Emily articulated her youthfulness so well, but hand in hand with this went an understanding that May was not necessarily ‘seeing’ everything she should. Emily demonstrated such a moment towards the end of the novel, when May was answering questions about Sam, the father of her baby, to the social worker who was pressuring her to give her baby up. Drugged, yet answering honestly without artifice, May caught sight of the woman in the hospital bed beside her, who had clearly been able to hear every word exchanged between May and the social worker.
“The woman in the bed next door peers through the curtain at me. Her face is flushed. I watch her, my eyelids heavy, and wonder what’s making her so sad.”
The youthful naivety of May shone through here in the most purely heartbreaking way. I knew what was making that woman so sad, and it gutted me, as it did that woman. There were many instances throughout Hello, Goodbye where Emily showed just how well first person present tense can work in when delivered from the right hands.
Sometimes, when reading a novel I particularly appreciate, I am left with a favourite line (and often many more than one) and this case, I have one from Hello, Goodbye. When Sister Teresa found out that May was pregnant, this line jumped out at me and stayed with me until the end:
“She moves towards the door, and it’s as if she’s cut me adrift and left me at the mercy of an angry ocean.”
The point at which May knew her life was about to completely change. I love the visualisation of that line.
So I loved Hello, Goodbye, without a doubt. It’s a powerful debut and an important story about a slice of Australian modern history. I recommend it highly, to readers of all ages, so we can remember and work towards ensuring that as a nation we don’t ever move backwards instead of forwards, particularly in the areas of social welfare within our country.
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of Hello, Goodbye for review.
Hello, Goodbye is book 38 in my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
If you would like to read more about the inspiration behind Hello, Goodbye I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Brewin for a focus on Debut Authors over at the Australian Women Writers Challenge blog.