Globe & Mail Review - What I'm Trying to Say is Goodbye

Reviewed by: Karen Solie

The door to Lois Simmie's new novel opens into the dim and torpid corridors of Kensington Manor. It's the wee hours of November 1, the Day of the Dead, and raining. It's always raining. This is Victoria. 

Matthew Kelly, ex-reporter and the apartment building's insomnolent caretaker, is on the wagon. It's proving a rough ride. He stalks the halls at night unbeknownst to his tenants who are, in the main, elderly and quietly kooky. 

Ennui settles like dust over everything. Matthew chain-smokes and vacuums a lot. His ife, Delia, usurped by the booze, has left him for a dapper Ralph Lauren type named Nick. He misses his native Saskatchewan. 

But Matthew's not the only one with problems. His daughter Kate is living in the dripping woods up-island with her son and new husband, Michael, a weak-willed carpenter who's morphed into a religious fanatic of the Doomsday stripe. She's hooked on pills. 

Michael's making time with Emerald, a bellicose hippie he's installed on their property, who alternatively beats and ignores her toddler, Joey. 

Kate's affable 13-year-old son, Sam, sees his joys vanish one by one as his stepfather's behavious grows increasingly erratic. His mom is a zombie. Michael and Emerald, gearing up for the Rapture, are creepier by the minute.

Eventually, Joey disappears, and Sam cottons on to how. Scared and isolated, he needs to talk to his grandparents.

Meanwhile, back at the Kensington, Matthew lurches through the first of AA's steps on the arms of his young mentor, Marty. A sub-plot involves an apartment resident and potential romantic partner for Matthew named Liz, who's tiring of her unsatisfying sexual affair with a slick and married local politician. Aided by a mischievous ghost, Liz realizes that, yes, that's all there is. Generally speaking, things need to get done around here.

And things are done. The novel arcs toward resolutions welcoming as a warmly lighted kitchen window at the end of a long rainy drive. What I'm Trying to Say is Goodbye is a plot-driven work.

The prose is well-machined, practical and solid as a Volvo. In terms of narrative, it's a bit too solid for me. There are, for example, no ambiguities of character (with the possible exception of Michael's) to trouble our fence lines. We are flat-out told in the first three pages that Matthew is a "depressed insomniac" and an "unquiet spirit." Emerald, the Bad Mother, is irredeemable.

But this is a good story, slightly soapy, and though its langauge feels domesticated, somewhat coached at times, there are no jarringly false notes.

I wanted to find out what happens next, and Sam's plight, in particular, is touching. It's worth noting that Simmie steers clear of the mawkishness and melodrama that threaten to hijack representations of lost love, 12-step epiphanies, fruitcake fundamentalists, child abuse and addiction, not to mention spectral visitations. She manages this, in part, through a consistent gentle humour and salt-of-the-earth pragmatism.

Walking along the breakwater on a typically grey blustery day, Matthew and Liz spot some fishermen. "What do you catch here?" Matthew asks. "Pneumonia," one of them says. VICTORIA PEOPLE ARE ALL BEING CONTROLLED BY ALIEN RADIO WAVES someone has printed in large black letters on the walk. 'That explains a lot,' Matthew says."

Simmie's novel addresses the hazards of isolation and cold comfort of opiates, the necessity of letting go and moving on.

The situations are dark, but the good eggs pull through on the strength of honest human affection. 

This isn't a book for drawn shades, shots of Dewar's and a pack of Export As. It's more suited to curling up under an afghan with a mug of hot chocolate, enjoying a good read as the weather turns.

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