Don Anderson, in reviewing Helen Garner’s book The Children’s Bach wrote:
There are four perfect short novel in the English language. They are, in chronological order, Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach.
Boy- where do you go after that???!!
I think that brevity is an intrinsic feature of this book. Like a small Bach piece, it is short and self contained, simple and yet complex. It takes a slice of life in 1980s Melbourne, and in this regard, Garner’s keen observations almost provide an ethnographic (and now historical!) artefact. Athena and Dexter are 1980s people who feel like people you’ve known and their house and lifestyle is so well-depicted that you feel you could recognize it if you walked in the door. As a northern suburbs gal myself, I can recognize many landmarks and events that she mentions almost in passing. In fact, I reckon you could plot a pilgrimage walk of the book!
The relationship between Athena and Dexter lies at the heart of the novel. They have two children- an autistic son, Billy, and a bright articulate son called Arthur. The summary on the back of my edition, and the recent rendering of the novel into an opera both make more of Billy’s autism than I was aware of in the book, where Billy is a stolid presence, but not particularly the focal point of the family dynamics. It’s not just the strain of Billy that drags at Athena, drawing her to abandon it all: it’s also her husband’s exuberance and obliviousness to her own personhood and the dream of being someone else in another more exciting world than hers.
I’ve read this book three times now, which is easy to do as it’s so short and it tumbles over you like a conversation overheard. It’s a book to grow up with. As I’ve grown older, I see different things in it, as if I’m revisiting my own young-motherhood at much this same time. I sense that in Garner’s most recent book, The Spare Room, she’s also revisiting the sort of characters in The Children’s Bach, grown older.
This is not the stuff of crashing drama: it’s lived-in life, with fallible and flawed human people, mess, and making do. Taking liberties with the final sentence, life as depicted in The Children’s Bach is the steady rocking beat of love and family in the left hand, and the flying arpeggios of “what if’s” and “maybes” in the right.