First released in 1996, this collection of non-fiction stories spans a quarter of a century in an extraordinary writing life. Helen Garner is regarded as one of Australia’s foremost writers with a body of work ranging from journalism to novels, screen-writing to reviews. Her recent published works have been non-fiction including This House of Grief and a collection of essays in Everywhere I Look. There are many hints of what was to follow in Garner’s work in some of these essays.
The book opens with an overview of Garner’s writing career at this point titled ‘The Art of the Dumb Question’, before segmenting into four parts: A Scrapbook, An Album; Sing for Your Supper; The Violet Jacket and Cruising. The stories are roughly grouped together by themes, spinning and weaving through a wide range of topics and experiences from teaching students about sex to a series of sisterly interviews (Garner is the eldest of five daughters and one son). The reader follows her into a mortuary and into a registry office, before travelling by train across Victoria and out to sea on a Russian cruise ship. There is time to marvel at the amazing produce at the Royal Melbourne Show, and to gain insight into the professional pride of maintaining a public pool – the Fitzroy baths.
Darker themes are explored rather than evaded. Following the piece on days spent observing at the morgue there is a somewhat surreal visit to a gun show. The shadow of violence and aggression overlays ‘The Violet Jacket’ and ‘Killing Daniel’ is devastating to read, a piece that once read cannot be forgotten. There are fleeting moments captured with clarity, such as an old woman making her way down hospital stairs with the help of a younger woman. She says ‘It gets worse. It gets worse. The grief gets worse.’ Garner’s ear and eavesdropping skill are demostrated throughout the collection.
But humour and honesty is also in evidence. Garner is upfront about her otherness, her role as the observer with a notebook, cataloguing and condensing the essence of human experiences, significant and otherwise. Warmth and wit flows through the sibling interviews with each sister numbered rather than named. The shifting alliances, the similarities and shared histories are documented in such a way as to give a sense of the camaraderie.
In David Jones’ ‘perthume’ department, Two says to One, ‘Here – let me squirt this on you, in case I hate it.’
In ‘Three Acres, More or Less’, Garner writes of a block of land with old orchard trees, a couple of dams, a shed and a house. Her father pays an unexpected visit, giving a brusque overview of all that is wrong or needs work about the place before quietly admitting before he leaves that he could live in a place like that. During the night, the silence is shattered by someone out in the dark with a shotgun. In true Garner style, the story doesn’t finish quite as you might expect.
For all the moments of seeing the world through the prism of other people’s lives and experiences, there are glimpses of the familiar in these stories for me. The drawing of a young, sulky girl by John Brack. The visit to Sovereign Hill at Ballarat on a day so hot that Garner buys a copy of Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton and reads it at the Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, sitting under a large sign saying SILENCE.
Garner is generous in sharing insights into her writing process. The collection includes stories of attending writers’ festivals and reviews of other writer’s work, including Elizabeth Jolley and Germaine Greer. ‘Patrick White: The Artist as the Holy Monster’ is an excellent overview of David Marr’s biography, described as a ‘grand and gorgeous book.’
I read the book on planes, in buses, at meal tables. I became deaf, I laughed, I cried.
Some of these stories were familiar, read years ago. But this recent encounter seemed to lose none of the vivacity and humanity despite the passing of the years. I’d found the audiobook on the online library catalogue, narrated by Garner herself. This was an audible treat, a wonderful way to immerse in these individual but not unrelated stories. It has only served to deepen my existing appreciation of Garner and her extensive body of work.
[Photo: view inside the Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, Soverign Hill]