Book Review: True Stories, by Helen Garner

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_true_stories.jpgBirth, 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

True Stories
by Helen Garner
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925773194
The paperback of this title has just been released.

 

Book Review: A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, by Bernadette Brennan

cv_a_writing_lifeAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

The litmus test of a good book about a writer is whether reading it makes me want to revisit the subject’s work – and visit the works I haven’t yet. Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work does both in spades.

Brennan, an academic and researcher in contemporary Australian literature, approached the prospect of mapping the landscape that created Garner, author of some of Australia’s most contentious and beloved writing, with understandable nervousness – shared by Garner herself:

‘She established at the outset that she did not want a biography. I did not wish to write one, but I knew that the intersection and overlap of her life and art made discussion of the biographical essential to understanding her work. Garner gave me access to the NLA [National Library of Australia] files, but went further in answering every query that I have put to her. She has admitted to anxious rumblings about this book.’

But Garner’s work itself is so closely tied to her own life that it’s impossible not to read any discussion of her forty years of writing alongside one of her personal history; her fiction and non-fiction both tap into her own experience, sometimes revisiting the same situation or character over and over again, tilting the mirror or camera slightly for a different angle on the same scene. Brennan was given full access to the NLA archives, Garner’s diaries and Garner herself. One of the main resources from the archives, setting the scene for Part I of A Writing Life, are the ‘Letters to Axel’. Garner was a prolific letter writer and shared everything with Axel, her companion and confidante from a young age:

‘As a twenty-year-old, Helen joked to Axel Clark: ‘One day these letters will be famous¬ – “The Life, Loves and Letters of Helen Ford [her name before marrying writer and actor Bill Garner]”. She envisaged neither her fame nor that Axel would keep and later archive her early correspondence.’

‘Famous for her letters, postcards and, more recently, her emails and texts’, Garner is notoriously self-interrogating, the letters and her own journal entries revealing anguish over the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip – now considered an Australian classic, it’s a thinly veiled self-portrait of a life of share houses and shared parenting in inner city Melbourne in the ‘70s – as well as her trajectory in the Australian lit scene following the sudden success and dissection of that book. That trajectory has not always been upwards, and Brennan goes deep into the controversies that have dogged Garner and in turn been subject to dogged unpacking by her on the page, in fiction and non-fiction.

Garner ‘redefined and shaped literary genres to accommodate her material’, she’s a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, lyricist and essayist, and a boundary-crosser whose championing of interior lives and the domestic sphere in turn suggested a structure for Brennan’s book, where ‘each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing’. Brennan uses this framework to walk through the ‘rooms’ of Garner’s literary house, considering her work along the way: from Monkey Wrench to Everywhere I Look. It’s a comprehensive and compelling way to travel through an exceptional quantity of material, and, fittingly, the bookend to this story is that Everywhere I Look won the best non-fiction category at the Indie Book Awards shortly after publication of A Writing Life.

Now I’m off to re-read Monkey Grip, which I haven’t read since I too lived in a house in inner city Melbourne, and I expect I might spend the next few months walking through the rest of Helen Garner’s house.

Reviewed by Mitch Marks

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work
by Bernadette Brennan
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925410396