Birth, death, relationships, fear, joy and passion – Garner weaves these and many other themes together in this superb collection of non-fiction written over an almost fifty-year time frame.
Garner – a novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist – draws on memories and anecdotes, overheard conversations, research that took her years, and observations that she has captured in seconds. Her notebooks, she tells us, are where she stores not only the material that forms the basis for her essays, but also her scribbled ‘notes: aimless’ that are sometimes the genesis of fiction.
It’s great company, this book. Equal measures confronting, comforting, confusing – solemn one section, the next lighthearted and laced with humour. How skillfully she describes her world and the people in it: including not only the family and friends she’s known well, loved (and sometimes lost), but also the kindness and weirdness of strangers. Garner is both brave and honest as she reflects on her experiences as a daughter, mother and grandparent, her disrupted relationships, and the delight to be found in both deep and fleeting friendships. In some of the most poignant sections she recounts the vulnerability of her aging parents as their health and well-being decline.
Read one chapter, and you’ll likely see Garner as resilient and confident, a woman able to take anything – and anyone – in her stride. Then read the next, and that view may be tipped on its head when she shares insecurities, regrets and sadness.
Garner raises both implicit and explicit questions – Who owns a story? Should writers and readers be kept apart? Can you be an artist without causing pain? The answers (whether hers or ours) are not likely to be clear-cut.
These essays are located in a vast and eclectic range of settings, including cruise ships and trains, morgues and graveyards, hospitals, spas and even a fencing lesson. She describes situations familiar to us all, as well as places that most of us will never visit. The chapters are in a rather loose chronological order and it doesn’t really matter in what order they are read. It’s a solid chunk of a book (over 600 pages) that you can dip in and out of, whether you have five minutes or five hours to spare. Some chapters run over many pages. Others are brief – a sentence or two, barely a paragraph. I know that I’ll want to return to this book over time, as many of the essays deserve to be re-read.
Each chapter is carefully and cleverly titled, some titles almost little stories themselves: Sighs Too Deep for Words, Auntie’s Clean Bed, Notes from a Brief Friendship, to name just a few.
Garner is open about her inability to judge the value of her work, and the elation as well as the despair she faces as a writer. In one of my favourite passages she writes about the tyranny of email – and her horror of the vast blank message field with its ‘appalling infiniteness’. She prefers the tight and disciplined boundary of a postcard: ‘You cannot go on and on and on. It challenges you to get straight to the point, to fill its tiny oblong with energy’. She laments the lost art of exchanging postcards and dislikes the immediacy of email, because the swift replies all too often arrive before the sender has had a chance to draw breath.
How well she gives life to the characters and situations she describes: the lawyer with ‘a face as pale as a teacup’, the ‘platters of tired old lettuce’ on a cruise ship buffet, the ‘tiny sausage’ of a sick baby’s arm, the ‘marmoreal bosom’ of a bride-to-be. (Marmoreal, it turns out, means resembling marble. Garner knows her words.) I found myself wanting to learn more about the people whose narratives Garner introduces and to find out what happened next. Some of the stories she relates have already attracted significant media coverage, yet Garner urges us to reconsider events through a different lens.
And look – there are secrets buried in the end papers. Hidden under the flaps of the dust jacket are handwritten tiny notes – what Garner would call ‘the hints and tremors of fiction’ – that may spark stories not yet told.
I recommend this book to readers who enjoy biographies and similar works of non-fiction, who will appreciate Garner’s powerful descriptions of ordinary situations and everyday lives. It will also appeal to people who are intrigued by the richness and complexity of relationships, people who are aging or caring for aging parents, and people who are both afraid of and exhilarated by the prospect of living alone, who must learn (as Garner does) to ‘carry their memories on their own’.
Garner says it is difficult to be an inconspicuous observer, however we are left in no doubt that she has mastered the art.
by Anne Kerslake Hendricks
by Helen Garner
Published by Text Publishing
The paperback of this title has just been released.