#NetGalley #HeadlineReview #IfICouldSayGoodbye
Published: 17th September 2020
Publisher: Headline Review
What an incredibly emotional read this was for me. I found myself having a good old cry at 4am over Jen and her family’s story. It begins when Jennifer is adopted by a childless couple and four years later gets an unexpected little sister. Kerry is a determined, mischievous and curious little girl and the pair are incredibly close. In adulthood, the two are still inseparable. Jen now has husband Ed and two children while Kerry has a long term partner in Nessa, who she is hoping to propose to. When a terrible accident happens while the sisters are on a shopping trip for an engagement ring, Kerry is killed. Now Jen needs to find a way to carry on living, but the survivor’s guilt and grief are very strong. As Jen starts to lose herself in her memories of her sister, it becomes clear that Jen can’t let Kerry go. Yet, by keeping hold of her sister, will she end up losing her own family?
This is my second book by Emma Cooper and after reading this she has been bumped up to my list of favourites – those authors where I know I’m guaranteed a great story, emotional impact and believable characters. She has the talent to combine a big emotional punch, with a sprinkling of humour which isn’t easy to do. I honestly fell in love with these characters and their relationships with each other. Jen is a very organised and capable woman, who loves spending time with her family and creating a beautiful home. I loved her with Ed and the way the author has created a balance of the romantic and the mundane into their relationship. There’s enough of a love story to draw us in, but we see the normality too as they get the children ready for school, do the grocery shop and get involved with school activities. Underneath the daily grind though is a strong love and passion for each other. Yet it is becoming tested by changes in Jen. Ed has noticed that Jen doesn’t seem as organised as usual and is often staring off into space. Then at other times she is almost over-excited and far be it from him to complain about more sex, but well, he wasn’t complaining exactly… it just isn’t like his wife. He worries, but labels these changes as part of the grieving process. He doesn’t know what we know. Jen can still see Kerry and talk to her. Kerry has been fuelling the recklessness he’s seen such as daring Jen to leap off a cliff into the sea. There’s a point when Ed realises that this isn’t just getting lost in memories. For Jen, Kerry is as real as he is or even the children and what will he do when this starts to affect them?
This was a tough, but loving and humorous portrayal of the journey relationships take when one partner is struggling mentally. I found the alternate chapters between Jen and Ed so effective because we can see the same events through both sets of eyes, sometimes with very conflicting results. I was so torn because I loved both of them, I wanted them to be together but I could understand each viewpoint too. Ed wants his wife back, the person he fell in love with and his best friend. He wants to be a family, but wants to protect their children too. Jen has a heartbreaking dilemma. Does she follow medical advice and take the pills that might make Kerry disappear forever? The psychiatrist who sees Jen and diagnoses complicated grief understands what she’s feeling. This is survivor’s guilt; Jen wonders why she survived and Kerry didn’t. Kerry saved her life by pushing her away from the oncoming vehicle. In Jen’s mind she’s already killed her once. Now she feels like she’s killing her all over again.
This was a tough read because I struggle with complicated grief. In 2007, as regular readers will know, my husband died from pneumonia as a complication of Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. It had been coming for some time, but for the final year of his life I was his carer for 24 hours almost every day, unless I had a Marie Curie nurse. He was dependent on me for food, drink, medication and all bodily functions, even breathing. Three months before he died I agreed that he needed to be admitted to a nursing home from hospital. One of our carers was injured and I couldn’t have managed alone. I knew when I made that choice it was very likely he would die. For a few weeks after his death, I would see him out of the corner of my eye, sitting in his wheelchair looking out into the garden. I could also hear the mechanism of his wheelchair and a little beep it used to make. I realised that this wasn’t really Jerzy, this was me being unable to let go. In therapy I talked about survivor’s guilt and how I felt I had killed him by sanctioning the nursing home. I knew rationally I couldn’t have done anything else, but emotionally it’s been very hard to accept my own choice. I also have multiple sclerosis but in a milder form and I discuss choices and possibilities at length with my new partner, because I would hate him to go through the same thing. Reading this was emotional, I did cry, but I also felt less alone with my experience.
The author has taken a really tough subject, but made it warm and humorous. I love the way Kerry is often doing things she did as a little girl like standing on her head or blowing bubblegum. She also sits in the oddest places and actively tries to make Jen laugh. The wider family were lovely too, willing to support and help out with the children or Jen. Her mum is always full of good sensible advice and their acceptance of this peculiar phenomenon is brilliant. The final scenes choked me up. They made me sad for what I lost back then as well as for Jen. I was desperate for her and Ed to make it and come back together as a family. The night I finished the book I was an angling widow! My partner and my brother went night fishing, so I was alone for the final chapters. I had a good cry on the dog – he’s very absorbent. I found myself very thankful for the new chance of love that I’ve had with my partner over the last couple of years. All I wanted to do was hold him close and tell him how much I loved him. This is an honest story about how complicated grief can be, but never lets us forget that where there is grief there is always great love.
Emma Cooper is a former teaching assistant, who lives in Shropshire, with her partner and four children. Her spare time consists of writing novels, drinking wine and watching box-sets with her partner of twenty-four years, who still makes her smile every day.
Her debut, The Songs of Us was snapped up in multiple pre-empts and auctions and is now being translated into seven different languages. Her last novel The First Time I Saw You was also a bestseller.