Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Helen Garner’

Stories: The Collected Short Fiction by Helen Garner

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Stories: the Collected Short Fiction contains some of Australian author Helen Garner’s best known short stories. There wouldn’t be too many Australian readers of a certain age who haven’t read Postcards from Surfers or My Hard Heart, both of which are in this collection.

The only fiction I’d read by Helen Garner prior to this collection was Monkey Grip, which I found too grungy for my tastes. While I didn’t finish Monkey Grip, I appreciated the author’s unpretentious and honest writing style and after reading Everywhere I Look, a collection of essays and extracts from the author’s diaries I decided to try her fiction again.

Most of these short stories had an autobiographical feel, including A Happy Story. The narrator buys two tickets for her teenage daughter to see a rock band and is unwillingly roped into attending the concert when none of her daughter’s friends can go. Luckily, the narrator’s sister says she will take the other ticket and the narrator enjoys a happy trip home listening to classical music through her car’s radio. This story is set in Melbourne, and although the Entertainment Centre is now the Collingwood Football Club’s headquarters, the familiarity of the setting is there. The band playing was Talking Heads, which firmly set the story in a particular time.

Postcards from Surfers is from the 1970s and is an Australian classic. A woman flies up to Coolangatta to stay with her parents and her aunt on the Gold Coast, back when the developers couldn’t sell apartments in their brand new high rises. The woman’s backstory is told in a series of postcards to a former lover named Philip. Reading between the lines, I didn’t think the narrator was over Philip…

Little Helen’s Sunday Afternoon also has an autobiographical feel. Little Helen is a fish out of water, too young to understand her mother and aunt’s conversation and humor. After being sent to play with her cousin Noah, Little Helen will probably be scarred forever after being shown horrific photos of maimed and deformed children.

The narrator in The Life of Art tells little stories about her friend which together make a whole story. The following one made me laugh, because it is true!

My friend came off the plane with her suitcase. ‘Have you ever notices,’ she said, ‘how Australian men, even in their forties, dress like small boys? They wear shorts and thongs and little stripy T-shirts.’

Civilisation and its Discontents stars another character named Philip. I knew I was right when I said the narrator (author?) in Postcards from Surfers wasn’t over Philip.

I preferred Helen’s Garner’s essays and non-fiction to her fiction so plan to read more of these in future. I don’t expect to agree with or like everything she writes, but I like that she is an author who isn’t afraid to say what she thinks.

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Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

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Everywhere I Look is a collection of memories, essays and true stories by respected Australian author Helen Garner.

I attempted to read Monkey Grip by Helen Garner a few years ago and while I enjoyed the author’s actual style, the idiocy of the characters annoyed me so much that I didn’t finish the novel. My notes from that review were; “I just couldn’t like them (the characters) enough to keep reading. I didn’t need to finish this to take the lesson – don’t fall in love or get involved with drug addicts, you will regret it.”

Everywhere I Look was broken up into loosely put together sections which occasionally offer life lessons. The first section, White Paint and Calico, are the author’s personal stories about home and moving house. The messages I took from this section is that home is where the ukulele is, that there is no such thing as a perfect table, and that moving house is up there with the strain of a death in the family, a new job or a divorce. I particularly enjoyed Suburbia, where the author shared the joys of living in a suburb, compared to previous experiences of having lived in ‘hipper’ places, such as a share-house in the inner-city.

There are so many stories of friendships with well-known and respected Australian authors that I got the feeling that Helen Garner knows and corresponds with everyone who counts, but my favourite was Eight Views of Tim Winton, who is a great Australian writer. I would love to know if Tim Winton really said, “Thanks, Mate,” to a priest instead of “Amen,” when taking communion at church, but even if this didn’t happen, it is a good story. I expect the gist of ‘Amen’ and ‘Thanks, Mate’ are much the same.

I found From Frogmore, Victoria to be the most heart-rending story. Helen Garner wrote about her visit with Raimond Gaita, who wrote the tragic memoir, Romulus, My Father. During the visit, Helen and Raimond visited many of the places where the events he had written about occurred, leaving me feeling flattened by the end of the story. For example; this is the shovel we buried the dog with, this is the tower someone jumped off when they suicided, and so on. I’m not being flippant here, Raimond Gaita’s family experienced terrible tragedies and the entire tour around Frogmore was punctuated by sad memories.

The true stories which featured in On Darkness would be familiar to most Australians. Punishing Karen was difficult to read. This was the true story of a schoolgirl who gave birth at home after hiding her pregnancy from her parents and also from herself, mentally and emotionally. Also difficult to read was The Singular Rosie, which tells of Helen Garner interviewing Rosie Batty about how she had coped since her son Luke was tragically and shockingly killed by his father. Another story tells of Robert Farquharson, who killed his three sons to get revenge on his former wife. Helen Garner says she was strongly criticised while writing a book about this tragedy for expressing sympathy for men in the position of being unable to cope emotionally when their wives leave them.

I actually liked reading the funny little stories about what Helen Garner’s grand-children said and did. Funny, because when I get bailed up by someone who wants to tell me stories about their kid, or grandchildren or even their dog, I, like most people, would prefer to throw myself under a bus rather than indulge the proud story-teller for longer than ten minutes. I think Helen Garner’s stories were bearable because they were short and to the point.

Helen Garner’s crowning glory though, for me, was her opinion about the indignities of old age. Being patronised by anyone is irritating at any age, but when Helen Garner can run circles around most people intellectually, I’m sure that being patronised by someone who looks as if they should still be in nappies is particularly frustrating. I loved that in The Insults of Age, she says she now saunters “about the world in overalls,” tears strips off idiots and confronts people who are doing the wrong thing without fear. I also like that she is honest about wanting to punch people’s lights out when they are stupid… because thinking about punching people’s lights out might not be socially acceptable, but is not a sin either (in my opinion, anyway).

Helen Garner’s style is straightforward and honest. Her voice is so strong that reading her stories make me believe that I am having an actual face-to-face conversation with her. Even though I am not speaking in this conversation, she still manages to tell me what I would want to know if I were participating.

I don’t think I will try Monkey Grip again, but will instead continue with Helen Garner’s non-fiction. She has written several books about defining Australian events, which I think will suit my reading tastes better.

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