Goodnight, Beautiful (by Dorothy Koomson)

I’ve been reading Dorothy Koomson’s books for a few years now. I find her style very readable; she has an excellent way with words and a good ear for conversation. Her plots can be rather hard-hitting, certainly thought-provoking. But nothing prepared me for this particular book.

‘Goodnight, beautiful’ is about a seven-year-old boy called Leo. However we never really meet Leo; as we quickly learn, he’s in hospital on life support after a head injury. His mother, Nova, has a vivid and moving dream at the beginning, one which clearly reflects her thoughts although we don’t know until near the end of the book what’s going to happen to Leo.

The rest of the book is told in a mixture of past and present, skipping backwards and forwards in time as we learn about Leo’s background, his unusual conception, and who his various relatives are. It’s partly narrated by Nova, and partly by a woman of similar age called Stephanie. Their link is that Stephanie is married to Mal, who was Nova’s best friend right the way through childhood.

There’s another important connection between Nova and Stephanie which is hinted at early in the book, although it’s not spelled out until the middle. Unfortunately, the blurb on the back basically summarises the first two-thirds of the book and I made the mistake of reading it after I found myself getting more and more confused about who was whom, and where Leo fit into the picture.

Still, even knowing this ‘secret’, and some of what was coming, it was quite a gripping book.. at least, to start with. Each scene is carefully crafted and I was quickly immersed in the story each time I picked the book up. Evidently the plotting and chronology were meticulously organised; it all hung together, and the various revelations (albeit with spoilers in the blurb) came at just the right moments.

However, none of the characters (well, other than Leo) really grabbed me. I felt the most sympathy for Nova although some of the things she does are beyond comprehension. Even then it was often difficult to distinguish her voice from Stephanie’s - and I really didn’t like Stephanie at all. The two husbands were even more shadowy; Keith perhaps deliberately so, although he seems to get rather a raw deal, one way and another. But Mal is a very confusing person; he’s supposed to be a good guy but I couldn’t make sense of his personality or some of the things he does.

I also found it a bit annoying that there were no headings to indicate who was narrating, or what year it was referring to; with the time leaping forwards and backwards and random switches between Nova and Stephanie, I often had to read a page or more before I knew who was speaking and what timeframe it referred to. I even forgot which one was married to whom, when I was tired, and the other minor characters were so vague as to be shadows.

This is billed as a tear-jerker and I can see why. It’s the kind of topic which should have had me in floods of tears; yet I remained dry-eyed. Perhaps this is because I couldn’t relate fully to any of the main characters - or perhaps it's because the parent/child relationship just didn't ring true. I have no idea if Dorothy Koomson has children of her own, but I suspect not.

There are certainly some thought-provoking issues covered in this book, but it was rather unremittingly negative and I thought the ending was unnecessarily unpleasant in several ways. Still, the writing is excellent, and I am in awe at the complexity of the plotting.

Recommended if you want something much heavier than the usual women's fiction, and can deal with the various issues above.

Review copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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