Aspiring writer Carver Briggs has always wanted to inspire with his words.
Unfortunately, the most famous words attributed to the 17-year-old will now always be connected with death. Because Carver sends a text message to his best friend Mars who replies while driving. This causes a terrible accident that not only kills Mars but also takes the lives of Eli and Blake, Carver’s other best friends.
Now Carver can’t stop blaming himself for the accident. And to make matters worse, he might be in trouble with the law. Mar’s devastated father, a powerful judge, wants Carver prosecuted, insisting that his actions contributed to the accident.
Racked by guilt, Carver finds an unusual form of redemption: to spend a “Goodbye Day” with each victim’s loved ones. What’s a Goodbye Day? It’s a day spent swapping stories of the deceased and participating in his favourite activities together as a way of saying goodbye.
You’d probably guess by now that this book is going to be a serious tearjerker. And you would be right. Books like this shouldn’t be graded with stars, but with handkerchiefs – and be warned, Goodbye Days gets a three or four handkerchiefs out of five rating at the least.
Goodbye Days is the second novel by American author Jeff Zentner. His previous novel, The Serpent King (2016), was a William C. Morris award winner (awarded to quality young adult literature that is a first work) and was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal (a British award recognising outstanding new books for children or young adults).
This novel explores themes of grief, guilt, and redemption. How can a person cope, it asks, when faced with a terrible tragedy beyond anyone’s understanding?
Zentner writes passionately and sensitively; his portrayal of Carver’s inner torment after the accident is extremely realistic, never veering into melodrama or angst.
His characters are also drawn very well; while some fit a little too snugly into the usual young adult fiction character archetypes, most of them are refreshingly real and fleshed out. Georgia, Carver’s assertive older sister is always fun whenever she appears, and Judge Edwards, Mars’ strict father, is equal parts sympathetic and infuriating.
The only character that seems a little off is Dr Mendez, Carver’s psychiatrist; while highly likeable, he seems a little too conveniently wise to be realistic.
Also interesting is Jessamyn, Eli’s former girlfriend, who Carver becomes close with after the accident. Often, romantic subplots in these kinds of novels are forced and should be met with much rolling of eyes. Here, however, their relationship feels very organic, and raises interesting questions: Is it right to date a friend’s partner after their death? Should you wait for a while? How soon is too soon?
The highlight of the novel, as you may have guessed, are the Goodbye Days that Carver arranges with the dead boys’ loved ones. There are some very beautifully written passages in these sections.
True to real life, they don’t always go as expected: while Carver has a really sweet Goodbye Day with Nana Betsy, Blake’s grandmother, things take unexpected turns in his day with Judge Edwards.
The novel is not without flaws; for one thing, the plot point about Carver being legally prosecuted for his involvement in the accident never really feels realistic. Not only is the idea flimsier than a skyscraper made of toothpicks (can you really charge people for sending texts? Really, now?), it makes the people so eager to charge him seem mean and petty.
The humour in the novel is also a bit hit and miss. Yes, given that the book deals with some very heavy themes, it’s good that there are also some laughs in the story. However, some of it is a little groan-inducing.
Mostly, this comes in the form of Carver’s memories, which are presented in the form of flashbacks of Eli, Blake and Mars joking around with him. As is typical of teenage boys, a lot of this humour is pretty juvenile; while this is true to life, some of their jokes and stories can grate, particularly as this happens in several scenes in the novel, all of which feel rather similar.
Get past these slight issues, however, and Goodbye Days is a touching, affecting read that will definitely encourage readers not to take the people in their life for granted.
Issues such as racial and sexual prejudice, parental expectations and mental health make appearances, and are dealt with quite well.
And not everything in the story is wrapped up nicely – just like in real life. Moving on will not be easy for the characters in this novel. Similarly, it will be difficult for readers to leave the beautifully created world of Goodbye Days.
Author: Jeff Zentner
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers, contemporary fiction