Book Review: The Seventh Cross, by Anna Seghers

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_seventh_crossFirst published in the US in 1942, this novel is the first unabridged English translation of the original, written by German born Jewish woman Anna Seghers. Of four copies Seghers made, only one made it to publication in the US, and even then it was posted from France, the others destroyed or disappeared. In 1944, a film starring Spencer Tracy based on this book was one of the few movies of the era to depict a European concentration camp.

As we continue to be deluged with both fiction and non-fiction, movies, TV series about the war, the Holocaust, the horrific and terrible cost, pain and loss of everything during WW2, this novel remains as relevant and important as it was 70 plus years ago.

George Heisler is a prisoner in a concentration camp near a town in Germany. Like the author, George is a communist, hence his imprisonment. Along with six others, one day he escapes. This is the story of that escape, how the others are caught, how George evades capture, how he learns who to trust and who not to trust, and how living on your wits is almost fatal work. The seven crosses are a creation of the ruthless and sadistic camp commander. As each prisoner is caught he is dragged back to the camp and tied to the cross erected for the purpose. Day after day the seventh cross remains empty.

Over the course of a very desperate week George returns to the town he came from – Mainz, where he has both good and bad luck in getting help for his continuing evasion from the Gestapo and SS. For the risk remains that he may be betrayed by any one of the people he meets, or that his contacts are in turn betrayed, or make an error that puts them and all their families at risk. It is a perilous world. But as we know, us humans can be capable of great risk taking for another person, and great acts of kindness. That George makes any progress at all is a miracle, but the biggest miracle is what he discovers about himself.

This novel is exquisitely written in its detail of daily life for the average German over this time. There is much putting the head in the sand amongst the citizens, the constant worry that ears are listening and possibly misinterpreting conversations, asides, who one is seen with. The SA, SS, Gestapo and Hitler Youth are everywhere, there is endless fear that one may put a foot wrong. Right up till the very last page, George’s plight could all go wrong.

This is neither a hard read nor an easy read. It is very detailed in the minutiae of daily life and there are a lot of characters, most of whom are peripheral to the actual plot. A character list at the beginning doesn’t do enough to introduce us to all the characters. However, this is a minor issue, as the story of George is really what carries the whole thing along. It would be great to see a remake of the 1944 movie.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Seventh Cross
by Anna Seghers
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9780349010670

 

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 Reviews: Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke, & A Pleasure to be Here: The Best of Clarke & Dawe, by John Clarke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tinkering_the_complete_book_of_john_clarkeMuch of what is presented in these two collections of John Clarke’s work has been published in similar forms before, but that doesn’t make either of these books any less essential. Clarke, of course, died suddenly and prematurely this year at the impossibly-named Mt. Abrupt, and it’s reasonable to assume there will be some demand for a career-spanning go-to as we head into Christmas.

Text has chosen to present the project in two parts. Tinkering features a wide range of Clarke’s writing, from Fred Dagg radio scripts to the farnarkeling reports to later essays and reflections. A Pleasure to be Here acts as Tinkering’s indispensable addendum, drawing together some of the best of the Clarke & Dawe scripts. The brief mock-interviews which Clarke and Bryan Dawe presented weekly for decades make up a large part of Clarke’s legacy, and they would have dominated a single-volume treatment. (A Pleasure to be Here runs over a hundred pages longer than Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke.)

Daughter Lorin Clarke, on whose podcast John appeared as a comedy historian, writes in her introduction to Tinkering about witnessing her father’s creative process, which “reflected not much the industrial rigour of the factory as the natural rhythms of conversation. These little linguistic jokes proscribe any hierarchies or even formalities, suggesting a mutual adventure that might continue for some time”. That’s as good a distillation of the nature and the enduring appeal of Clarke’s work as you’ll get. More than any other satirist, he was constantly in conversation with his audience, encouraging us on a “mutual adventure”.

cv_a_pleasure_to_be_here

We get to see the origins of that adventure in a set of essays Clarke wrote about his parents and other dear departed. In the essay on his late mother, he recalls seeing an actress in Palmerston North pretending to be drunk and singing ‘Making Whoopee’. The young Clarke was aware that he was “learning about something by seeing it exaggerated”. This would seem to have made an impression on him. He does, after all, spend lines in an essay nominally about his mother on an amdram lady called Bunty Norman. The “learning about” aspect of this seems significant. Clarke is aware he doesn’t know quite what’s going on, realises that the real thing is different from what is being presented, but treats the whole thing as a learning experience about that real thing. It’s not enough to say Clarke was a decent bloke who had respect for his audience (which is true): he also had a profound understanding of – and curiosity about – the interaction between audience and performer. In the Clarke and Dawe interviews especially, but also with Fred Dagg and The Games, Clarke is not so much a star performer as your co-conspirator. All the time, of course, he’s teaching you about something by exaggerating it.
But Clarke’s exaggeration is likely several thousand shades subtler than Bunty Norman’s. There are many moments in Tinkering where Clarke’s sly, playful humour achieves a state you can only really call “beautiful” or “perfect”; for example, when he describes David Lange as “a man who only shaves because it provides him with an audience”. What a line. If Oscar Wilde had said it (and he would have been happy to) it would be on desk calendars and coffee mugs. But it’s for more than a well-turned phrase or three that you should buy this book. In those moments when you can sense Clarke burning to really make a point, he does so with measured, clear-eyed conviction. Here he is on ‘The New Zealand Sense of Humour’:

“…said to be laconic, understated and self-deprecating. Even if true this is not very helpful. As the same claim is not unreasonably made for the humour of the Scots, the Irish, the English, the Australians, the Russians, the Canadians and the ancient Greeks among others.”

Here he is writing in 2008, at the height of the Global Financial Crisis, in a piece he frames as advice from his recently deceased father:

“You can’t have companies borrowing these huge amounts and not have the bloke come round at some stage and say ‘We’ll have the money now, thanks.’ The whole house of cards will go over. You watch.

And I’ll tell you another thing. The world is being destroyed by greed… And this environmental disaster we’ve got on our hands. What’s caused all this? Greed. Same thing. Capitalism.”

And, of course, the ‘Howard Apology’. In John Clarke and Ross Stevenson’s The Games, the actor John Howard gave the apology that the Prime Minister John Howard was incapable or unwilling to give. In Clarke and Stevenson’s imagined present, John Howard uses the opportunity of having the world’s eyes on Australia for the 2000 Olympic Games to apologise to the country’s indigenous people. After acknowledging that his forebears “destroyed” the Aboriginal world, and that the country has allowed social and racial differences “to become fault lines” he concludes:

“I speak for all Australians in expressing a profound sorrow to the Aboriginal people. I am sorry. We are sorry. Let the world know and understand, that it is with this sorrow, that we as a nation will grow and seek a better, a fairer and a wiser future. Thank you.”

The force of ‘The Howard Apology’ has only grown in the seventeen years since broadcast. Much satire is temporal in nature, as Clarke himself acknowledged, and inevitably not all the pieces collected here land as well as this. This would seem to be the key obstacle facing A Pleasure to be Here, which takes in Clarke & Dawe pieces all the way back to 1989. It’s a fair bet not everyone picking up this book is going to remember all the newsworthy moments of Alan Bond, Tim Fischer and Kevin Andrews, and so it’s remarkable that the book succeeds as well as it does. Clarke and Dawe’s familiar cadences bubble up from every page, and reading the interviews en masse is hypnotising. The form is strong enough that the interviews become timeless meditations on the frustratingly opaque and pompous nature of public language. They’re absurd, but often very silly.

Clarke’s only novel, The Tournament, is very enjoyable but maybe a little unfulfilling as a total piece. Even The Games is remembered more for individual scenes which read more like sketches than essential elements of a wider story. The Clarke & Dawe interviews, along with some of the Fred Dagg television material, remain the epitome of his work. He really was at his best in short form comedy, which makes him a great candidate for anthology. These books are a treat and a delight. I was familiar with a good deal of this material before picking either of them up, but was seduced by Clarke’s voice into that mutual adventure all over again. Presumably, Tinkering and A Pleasure to be Here have been released now so you can buy them both for your parents this Christmas. Given the quality of work compiled here, it’d be rude not to go and do just that. But get your own copies as well.

Reviewed by Jonny Potts

Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke
by John Clarke
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925603194

A Pleasure to be Here: The Best of Clarke and Dawe 1989-2017
by John Clarke
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925603200

Book Review: Anaesthesia, by Kate Cole-Adams

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_anaesthesia.jpgAnaesthesia focuses on the brain, requiring the brain to focus on Anaesthesia. This makes for a challenging, fascinating, disquieting read, in no small part due to the underlying theme of uncertainty. There are still many unanswered questions about how anaesthetics work, how an individual brain will react, and what an adequate level of anaesthetic actually is. A line from page 126 sums up the experience of some patients very well: It was all, says author Kate Cole-Adams, very Lewis Carroll.

You don’t have to be a medical professional to read this book, only someone who – like Cole-Adams – is ready to be captivated by the mysteries of anaesthesia. She’s a writer and journalist who spent years carrying out research for this book, drawing on both personal and professional networks. She talked with anaesthetists around the world, observed operations, and attended conferences. She read widely, at times bewildered and frustrated by medical jargon. She entered the realms of psychiatrists, psychologists, hypnotists, neuroscientists and others skilled at studying and influencing how our minds and brains react. She also spoke with people willing and keen to share their personal (and sometimes dreadful) experiences with anaesthesia.

Cole-Adams suggests that the lines between anaesthesia, dreams and reality are indistinct and permeable. Consciousness, she suggests, is a small boat on an immense sea. She explores in detail how and what we are aware of, and under what conditions. She’s open about her own involvement with, and attitudes towards, anaesthesia. She also reflects on some of her past relationships and life choices, analyses recurrent dreams, and describes living with both physical and emotional unease including her anxiety about being put under.

There are numerous philosophical challenges for readers to engage with, particularly around the ‘interruption of self’ that occurs during anaesthesia. Cole-Adams encourages us to consider (and then reconsider) what consciousness is. Be prepared to confront your existing beliefs about what happens when you are anaesthetised, and the critical role that memory – or the absence of memory – plays. And yet despite the knowledge of what can and does go wrong, who among us will not choose to be comforted by the confidence and relative reassurance of the anaesthetist who visits our bedside before surgery?

There are lessons for medical staff too, with confirmation that hearing is likely to be the last sense to switch off under anaesthesia. Although some anaesthetics apparently suppress sound well, others are less effective. There is no easy way to tell how unconscious an individual patient may be, especially during the time that they are going into or emerging from an anaesthetic.

Cole-Adams is a keen observer of personalities, clothing, sights and sounds. She describes a no-nonsense professor of psychiatry who ate party pies doused with sauce as he strode along interrogating her about the purpose and funding of her book. She tells us about the tins of oatmeal cookies perched on the desk in the den of a world-famous anaesthetist, whose interview outfit included a tie decorated with colourful butterflies. And she – a sun-loving Australian – writes about her underwhelming visit to a bleak and gloomy corner of far-off Hull to attend yet another medical conference.

Questions of ethics abound. It’s alarming to learn about some of the experiments carried out on anaesthetised patients – and the dubious rationales for conducting some of the experiments. The terms that Cole-Adams uses to refer to patients are often sobering: deflated, panicked, wilted, overwhelmed, even crucified.  Perhaps it was inevitable that the word vulnerable would appear so frequently throughout the book.

Section and chapter headings hint at the strange and beautiful world we enter under anaesthesia: Denial, Moonless nights, Regression, Blood and blushing among them. Woven around the compelling and often disturbing stories, Cole-Adams offers anecdotal evidence, arguments and counter-arguments, new terms coined by scientists for states of anaesthesia, theories and hypotheses. She includes suggestions for further research – so much still remains unknown.

I’d be cautious about reading this book before a planned anaesthetic. Chances are nothing will go wrong, but the ‘what ifs’ may linger long after you read the final page.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Anaesthesia
by Kate Cole-Adams
Published by Text
ISBN 9781925498202

Book Review:On the Java Ridge, by Jock Serong

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_on_the_java_ridge.jpgThere’s something disturbingly satisfying about those rare novels that deliver an upper-cut to your gut. If you’re a masochist like me when it comes to novels, pick up On the Java Ridge.

Literary award-winning Jock Serong packs a punch on board the Java Ridge, an authentic Indonesian phinisi that ferries Australian tourists to remote surfing spots in the Savu Sea. Against the better judgement of Australian skipper Isi Natoli, a group of excited tourists plunge into the reef of uninhabited Dana Island, having spotted virgin surf. Outnumbered, Isi is forced to concede to the tourists’ demands for epic swells and anchors the Java Ridge in the island’s sheltered lagoon. After an idyllic afternoon among the waves, the group set up camp on the shore. With a tropical storm brewing to the north, they hope for a dry night ahead.

Hundreds of kilometres away, the Takalar has also set sail. On board is young Roya and her pregnant mother. They are now only an ocean away from the Promised Land, Australia, after fleeing persecution in Iraq. As the only survivors of their family, Roya, her mother, and her unborn sister have journeyed long and far in search of safety and a new life. Unbeknownst to both the Java Ridge skipper Isi Natoli and the asylum-seekers on board the Takalar, the notoriously refugee-unfriendly Australian government is on the eve of a general election and is relentless in preventing any last minute immigration scandals.

When the Takalar’s engine runs of its mounts and capsizes on the reef of tainted Dana Island, Roya and her mother come face to face with a watery reaper. Dozens lose their lives to the swirling Savu Sea. Yet despite the stormy skies Roya and her mother’s stars align, and they are pulled to safety by the Java Ridge’s skipper, Isi. Woken by the screams for help, identifiable in any language, the Australian tourists rescue as many people from the doomed Takalar as they can. A make-shift triage operation is set up on the island as the Takalar sinks to the ocean floor. Grappling with few supplies and needing urgent medical attention, Isi decides to load the Australians and asylum-seekers alike onto the Java Ridge and set sail for Australia.

Meanwhile in Canberra, the Minister for Border Integrity, Cassius Calvert, is beginning to make some ugly discoveries. Placed minister as a pawn, Cassius is self-absorbed and incompetent. The government has recently announced a new hard-line anti-asylum seeker policy that has the potential to cause public outcry. With the general election looming, it is vital that voters don’t scare. As Cassius starts to realise the grisly nature of the very policy he signed off on, his ineptitude proves him to be perfectly primed not to be able to prevent impending disaster. All the while, the Java Ridge chugs nearer.

Serong has a knack for creating characters the reader will invest in, and it is thanks to this skill that On the Java Ridge gets the reader eating out of the palm of one hand, and then delivers a sucker-punch with the other. Throughout the journey, we are subtly but expertly invited into the rationale of each character, resulting in some of the best understood and cared-for characters I’ve ever read (yes – even deplorable Cassius).

On the Java Ridge is a politically poignant thriller that is hugely relevant as developed nations grapple with the influx of uncontrolled migration. While certain governments draw international criticism on their hard-line immigration policies, there is a simultaneous rise in the popularity of notions such as those carried in the hashtag #RefugeesWelcome aimed against such policies. On the Java Ridge pushes readers to question how far their governments would go, and how far they would allow their governments to go in order to protect their borders. Serong’s novel is a timely reminder that we are all human, and just how easily we can lose touch with that shared identity.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

On the Java Ridge
by Jock Serong
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925498394

 

Book Review: Snooze – The Lost Art of Sleep

Is there a man living who knows what he looks like and what he does when he is asleep? … Some men sleep intelligently, others like clowns. (Balzac, quoted in Snooze)

cv_snoozeSnooze is the sort of book that a wise and thoughtful uncle might write, perhaps reflecting McGirr’s early adult life working as a Jesuit priest. Intriguing facts and wry observations are interspersed with gentle and perceptive descriptions of parenthood, and philosophical issues to contemplate. McGirr’s fascination with sleep stems from his own struggles with sleep apnoea and the exhaustion he experienced during his sleep-deprived years co-parenting twins and their close-in-age sibling.

McGirr makes it clear that Snooze is not a guide-book for people searching for techniques to ensure a good night’s slumber. Instead it is part-biography, part-history, part-enquiry into what is known and what still remains to be known about the complexities and functions of sleep.

McGirr brings history to life by sharing sleep-related stories about well-known historical and fictional characters, including light sleepers and insomniacs such as Thatcher and Dickens (who, apparently, would only sleep in a bed where his head could point north). He looks at how sleep is depicted by writers such as Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, by philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and within Homer’s Odyssey. He describes how Robinson Crusoe slept safely and comfortably in a ‘thick bushy tree’ and how Gulliver preferred to sleep next to his horses rather than his family. McGirr also explores the role of sleep in war, in the bible, in fairy-tales, and amongst the homeless. He reflects on the gap between those who have their own beds and those who do not, acknowledging the skills that people who sleep rough must develop to seek shelter.

Short of conversation-starters? Snooze provides plenty. Did you know that horses’ joints have tendons and ligaments that lock to allow them to sleep standing up, or that neuroscientists are considering the possibility that babies dream before they are born? And have you heard about the Italian who has invented a bed that makes itself? (There’s a YouTube clip about this, if the book piques your interest.)

McGirr points out the incongruities between how sleep-related products are marketed – the crisp white sheets, the fluffy pillows – and the contrasting realities of human sleep as we toss and turn, shedding hair and skin flakes, perhaps dribbling, scratching, and sweating. (Or worse.)

Coffee, of course, gets a mention – alongside other caffeinated drinks and drugs that hinder rather than help. McGirr remarks on the contradiction of the café ritual: ‘it’s a curious culture that allows you to relax as long as you spend the time loading up on stimulants’.

I often like books that can be dipped into – a few pages here and there as time allows. Although I read Snooze from start to finish, most chapters would stand alone well. You could open the book at random and read a chapter or two at a time. There’s a brief reading list for each chapter at the back of the book if you’d like to learn more.

Perhaps my favourite story is of McGirr’s four-year-old son appearing at his parents’ bedside at 2:06 a.m. When asked why he couldn’t go back to his own bed he earnestly declared that this would not be possible, as he had already made it. Parents may also empathise with (and perhaps even admire) the now nomadic family whose children were such terrible sleepers that their parents resorted to driving them around because they would only sleep in the car. The family journeys became longer and longer – until ten years and thousands of miles later they were still on the road, albeit now by choice.

McGirr describes the process of surrendering to sleep as ‘an act of faith in the existence of tomorrow’. Is sleep, he ponders (quoting Aristotle), an activity of the body, or the soul, or both? Something to think about when you nod off tonight.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Snooze – The Lost Art of Sleep
by Michael McGirr
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925498585

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