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What’s the big deal about Helen Garner?

Helen Garner had just been inducted into the Australian Book Industry Awards Hall of Fame and I was listening to the audiobook of Everywhere I Look, which I had borrowed from my local library.

Narrating the book herself, she spoke about small observations about her life. Initially, I thought many of them seemed almost mundane. Sure, some captured the beauty of little moments in everyday life, but really, they were just anecdotes that I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear my friends recount.

But then it came – the little treasure nestled mid-chapter. And then another and another.

In one, she spoke about her mother in a way that seemed to sum her up so precisely that I felt like I knew her. She described her meek mother, who stood in the shadow of her overbearing father:

“She did not sense the right moment to speak. She did not know how to gain and hold attention. When she told a story, she felt a need to establish enormous quantities of irrelevant background information. She took so long to get to the point that her listeners would tune out and start talking about something else. Family shorthand for this, behind her back, was “and then I breathed.”

The observation of her mother is somehow heartbreaking, cutting as it does to the very nature of the person, and her struggles even when relating to her own family. Garner offers a nugget of truth about a person, putting in words a reality that otherwise would have remained opaque and hard to grasp. It is both enlightening and quietly devastating.

It is clear throughout the book and much of her work that Garner is endlessly curious, and this curiosity is likely what enables her to dig for these truths, when others would shrug their shoulders, frustrated by long preambles and interminable stories.

Or is it that, alongside her curiosity (which is clear in all her writing, from her response to her friend’s illness and death to her grandchildren’s games), she has a knack for perceiving the essence of a person, which strikes her immediately and easily, ignoring the obvious or popular impressions in favour of the deeper truths.

In her explanation of her interest in writing This House of Grief about Robert Farquharson’s murder of his three boys when he drove them into a dam, this search for truth beyond the obvious is also clear. She explains that she was not interested in portraying Farquharson as a monster, but rather, as a normal, weak man who was unable to cope with challenges that life threw him. She said that it would be a disservice, and a risk, to society to label him as a monster, as if many more men are not capable of the same thing under certain conditions.

While it might be a position that is unpopular and challenging, in Garner’s words it seems the only true perspective to take, as chilling as it might be.

In The Spare Room, a book that Garner wrote about caring for her dying friend, she was equally tuned in to the realities, rather than the sentimentality of the situation. She wrote not about the sadness that you might expect, but about the rage she felt at the quack cures in which her friend, who has end-stage cancer, puts her faith.

I once attended a conversation event in which Helen Garner appeared, and I was so star-struck by the writer, whose Monkey Grip had both alarmed and fascinated me when I first attended a university college on Royal Parade, close to where the book was set, that all I can remember of it was my friend leaning over and saying, “I’m glad she didn’t get into any feminism bullshit.”

As arguable as the premise of that comment might be, over the years I realise that it is in keeping with Garner that she wouldn’t cover old ground, talking about what everyone else was discussing – ‘feminist bullshit’ according to some.

In her 70s, the bohemian Garner continues to surprise, with this world-class author writing about farts and of being kicked out of a school where she taught for answering her students’ questions about sex.

In Everywhere I Look, she surprises with her shame when a grandchild makes an innocently critical comment about her haircut and revealing that even to her – a grande dame of Australian literature – it is painful to fine yourself on the end of the brutal truth-telling of children. It points to a vanity that might otherwise be hard to spot, given Garner’s often unflinching commentary about her own appearance.

Garner is a writer who can explore the personality of furniture in a way that is surprising, and reflect on age, loneliness, family, and even barely imaginable crimes, with clarity, humanity and wisdom.

And among the mundane in everyday life, Garner identifies the absurd, the surprising, the familiar, the true, and occasionally, the sublime. No wonder she is considered one of Australia’s great treasures.

Books mentioned are available at Booktopia (Australia) and The Book Depository (US and UK).


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