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Poetry for the soul
Poetry for the soul

BooksApril 1, 2016

Book of the Week: Fiona Kidman reviews the amazing Helen Garner

Poetry for the soul
Poetry for the soul

Fiona Kidman reviews the essay collection Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look is Australian writer Helen Garner’s latest collection of essays and, like much of her former work, it’s not lacking in controversial aspects. Her early writing was like entering a soothing bath of recognition, a woman who understood the suburban condition and depicted it with grace and precision in her fiction. For years, my battered copy of Postcards from Surfers (1985) served as a textbook of sorts when I was leading writing classes. I regard her four-page story “In Paris” as one of the great short stories of our time, in the way it draws nuance and dialogue together to signify cultural difference between two characters, a man and a woman squabbling over what to have for dinner.

I continued to devour her work, marvelling over the flow of language, the unerring eye for the telling detail. As an essayist, I found her craft sublime, a Joan Didion with grandchildren, the Janet Malcolm of Australia, and she was irresistible. And then something changed. For a long time, I stopped reading her.

Once, before this happened, I had invited Garner to dinner when she was visiting New Zealand. As she was travelling alone, and a self-proclaimed feminist, I asked a group of women writers to join us.  It was the 1980s, it seemed a good idea.  She arrived wearing a chic navy blue hat, not unlike a pompon, a French sailor’s hat, with trailing ribbons at the back, and a wary expression. She kept both of them on throughout dinner. I have wondered, in hindsight, whether she was travel weary, or preoccupied, or  just alarmed to find herself  in a Kiwi posse, ‘down among the wimmin’. (We were pretty harmless; another possibility, perhaps too much so).

Garner lends herself to this kind of speculation, both as a writer and as a person, because she is ever present in her work, scrutinising her own life and that of others in diary form in her books, a relentless gatherer of other people’s personal details. And, her sexual politics have been endlessly debated since she published The First Stone in 1995, an account of a high profile sexual harassment case at Ormond College, a residential arm of the University of Melbourne. Her book effectively denounced two young women for complaining to the police about what Garner perceived as pretty routine behaviour by their lecturer. Who knows, in the end, whether there was a case to answer (the master was acquitted), but her stance surprised many followers.

The waters around her gender politics were forever muddied. Subsequent works have continued in similar vein, examining perplexing relationships between men and women, some ending in terrible ways. Obviously, there is merit in trying to make sense of why things happen. Anything that might throw light on why an estranged husband, Robert Farquharson, drowned his three children, or Joe Cinque was murdered by his partner, might contribute to preventing further crimes.

The problem with Garner’s perspective was how often attractive young women came out of things badly. It’s the very sinuousness of her prose that draws one in to a kind of vortex of agreement, until one stops and reflects on the message. The First Stone was the beginning of the end for me.

Or so I thought. My approach to Everywhere I Look was tempered with caution, a slight holding of the breath.  As it turns out, there is little not to like. The thirty-three stories traverse friendships, personalities, random encounters, film critiques, getting old, Garner’s relationship with both her father her mother (her ghost is in my body ) her three failed marriages, and good and bad haircuts ( the difference between a bad haircut and a good one is only a week ). Much of the savagery and the mockery has been laid to one side, as if a certain delicate tenderness has come upon her with the passage of years.

True, the thread of the Farquharson, Cinque and Ormond College cases ripple through the work. In “On darkness”, a lecture Garner delivered at the Sydney Writers Festival in 2015, she writes of the Farquharson case:

 If he had been a monster, I wouldn’t have been interested in writing about him. The sorts of crimes that interest me are not the ones committed by psychopaths. I’m interested in apparently ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.

Hmm. The key word here is ‘apparently’. What, perhaps, she means, is that the face of monsters may be indistinguishable from the rest of us, and that is a very troubling conclusion. For, even now, it seems Garner cannot be convinced that the person who commits a monstrous crime isn’t a monster. It’s all very well to be a thinking feminist who happens to see troubled men’s points of view, just don’t excuse the inexcusable. Killing the kids is never an answer to an unhappy marriage.

Yet in the same essay I found myself nodding in sage agreement at the point where she writes of police advice to women not to take short cuts through certain parks, or wear headphones when they run alone on riverbanks:

 These official warnings drive women crazy because they seem to proceed from an enraging assumption that the public space belongs to men, and that women have no claim on it: we broach it at our peril. But I’ve come to think that the sub-text of what the politicians and police chiefs are saying, in their clumsy, poker-faced way, is this: no matter what the political rhetoric is, please do not assume that because you should be safe in public spaces you will be safe.

What ever one’s response to the issues she raises, there is much to engage the reader at several levels. Garner is at her very best when she writes about children with a grandmother’s intense affection, or about friendships with writers like Tim Winton, or Raimond Gaita, who wrote the memoir Romulus, My Father, later filmed. Gaita’s Romanian father and German mother migrated to Australia at the end of WWII.  They were sent to Bonegilla Migrant Centre, a camp near Wodonga, before being transferred to Baringhup where the tragic family lived in a house called Frogmore. The description of a journey that Gaita takes Garner on to the deserted farmhouse is deeply moving.

This, along with “The Insults of Age”, in which Garner verbally rampages through ageist encounters in shops, medical centres, restaurants and bars, are my personal favourites in her page-turning book. I’m forced to admit, after all, that a bit of savagery doesn’t go amiss. And, yes, I’m back, Helen, your avid, if combative, fan again.

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner (Text Publishing) is available at Unity Books.

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