2016, 240 p.
When I checked out how many Helen Garner books I’d reviewed on this blog there are five, which makes her (along with Kate Atkinson) the author I’ve read most often in the last eight years. I read others of hers, too, read before I started blogging. It’s no secret that I very much enjoy her writing and feel a sense of wary affinity with her, bolstered by being much the same age and a fellow-Melburnian.
This book differs from the others I’ve reviewed in that it is a collection of her essays, several of which I have read before in the Monthly. None of them are particularly long and they offer a slice of perspective and a way of looking, as the title suggests. She has a penetrating intensity that disguises itself as a general-looking-around. I find myself wishing that I could discipline myself to look more carefully and thoughtfully, instead of just letting things wash over me.
As with short stories, it’s hard to talk about essays, because each one stands on its own two feet and it feels almost unfair to single one out above the others. A collection of essays, just as with short stories, does not just fall together but is instead a curated arrangement and selection. This is particularly apparent in this book, which is divided into six parts.
The first, ‘White Paint and Calico’ explores housing and the sense of home, which indirectly is the theme that her early books are rooted in, even though they directly focus on people. Perhaps this is where the Melbourne-identification is closest for me. Inner-city, student share-house Melbourne permeates Monkey Grip, the Last Days of Chez Nous is set in one house, and I’m sure that I know exactly where Dexter and Athena lived in The Children’s Bach. As it happened, I read these essays in bed on a Sunday morning, having just read Robyn Annear’s excellent Melbourne-Prize-for-Literature winning essay ‘Places Without Poetry’ (available online here) and they were a perfect complement to each other. I felt a rush of rootedness in the final paragraph of ‘Suburbia’ where she writes about Gerald Murnane’s acceptance speech for the Melbourne Prize for Literature. Murnane, who ironically lived only two streets away from me here (in an obscure lower-middle-class suburb that is rarely in the news) , refused to go abroad with the prize money that was, under the terms of the prize, supposed to be spent on overseas travel. Instead, he said, he would visit all the houses in Melbourne that he had ever lived in.
Then he tilted back his head, closed his eyes, and recited a long list of all his former addresses in the suburbs of Melbourne: plainly named streets in obscure, lower-middle-class suburbs that no one ever goes to or hears about in the news. And as he reeled them off, by heart, without hesitation, in chronological order, we all held our breath, with tears in our eyes, because we knew that he was reciting a splendid and mysterious poem. It was a naming of parts of the mighty machine that had created the imaginative world of an artist. And when he finished, and opened his eyes, the place went up in a roar of joy. (p.25)
When my husband forwarded onto me, the (excellent) poem ‘Naming of Parts‘ by Henry Reed, I realized anew that Garner ‘looks’ with the eye of a reader and writer. This comes through clearly in the second part, ‘Notes from a Brief Friendship’ where she talks about her friendships and influences, of varying intensities, with other writers. One was Mrs Dunkley, a primary school teacher, with the sting in the tale of the essay coming in the closing paragraphs as the adult Helen looked back at the school-girl Helen, and her perceptions then of Mrs Dunkley. I enjoyed this story most from this section, despite the fact that unknown Mrs Dunkley is surrounded by Australian literary luminati like Tim Winton, Jacob Rosenberg, Raymond Gaita and Elizabeth Jolley.
Part Three, ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’ is largely about construction of self as a writer. It’s probably the baggiest section, with three slabs of paragraphed journal writing, interspersed with two other stories: one an anecdote about a dog and the other a reflection on daughterhood.
Part Four ‘On Darkness’ is a collection of writings related to crime, which has been her patch over recent years with ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ and ‘House of Grief’. Part Five ‘The Journey of the Stamp Animals’ is a collection of judgments of a different kind, as she critiques books and films. I hadn’t thought of her as a cultural critic, but she’s a good one.
And finally, Part Six ‘In the Wings’ is another more disparate section. ‘My First Baby’, which I think was probably the most memorable essay of the collection, is a reflection on her uni-student job in the toy department of a department store and her mature-woman recognition of something she witnessed there. Several of these essays reflect on the physical act of growing older- something I’m only too aware of!
So, all in all, an absolutely delightful gift of Garner’s writing, all bundled up into one book. Thank you.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
My rating: 9/10
I’ve included this review on my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge