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20 years later, Monkey Grip is not what it seemed

Sometimes, re-reading a beloved book can be a mean shock. That was the case when I picked up Monkey Grip, 20 years after first read and adored it while I was at university in Carlton.

While the language remained just as strikingly beautiful, the story changed dramatically under older, warier, more wrinkled eyes.

No longer was I swept away by the romance of Nora’s life, of her complicated relationships, her bohemian sensibility and her long, lazy afternoons spent by the pool. Instead, I kept wondering who was looking after Nora’s young daughter, Gracie, tsking at Javo’s hopeless addiction and wondering why no one was going to work.

Clearly, I was missing the point of Helen Garner’s semi-autobiographical novel about the joy and angst of share housing in the 1970s. Sometime over the two decades between reads, I had changed dramatically from wanting to be like Nora, to feeling relieved that I didn’t walk too closely in her footsteps. Instead, I chose a far more stable and predictable life, possibly one that Nora would have detested.

My own share house experience was a far tamer animal than Nora’s, even while it occurred in the same suburb, and just ten years later.

Interestingly, an older Garner is also quite different to her younger self. Reading Garner’s reflections on life, Everywhere I Look, penned about 50 years after Monkey Grip, I was surprised by how much I identified with this grandmother, whose life now seems familiar, but still with its unique bohemian flare.

In Everywhere I Look, Garner has maintained her ambivalence about long term monogamy, while also maintaining a yearning for that ever-lasting romantic love that she seems to reject.

She is single and happily, but occasionally shows a sense of regret for another type of life – but one which I sense would be intolerable for her.

The maturing of the writer in the latter story is clear – Garner has shifted her focus from her turbulent inner life to the turbulence of the world around her. She is still assessing and interpreting, but this time she is bringing her intelligence to issues of crime and culpability, masculinity and ageing.

She maintains a spark of non-conformism, pulling the ponytail of a girl she sees harassing an older woman. While her life is no longer swept along by frenetic tides, she is by no means entirely accepting of the status quo, and of tolerating rudeness even from a child.

In many ways, I liked the intelligent and older Helen Garner better than I did her admittedly captivating Nora. I agreed with her opinions on everything from furniture to her reaction to Jill Meagher’s murder, and felt that her words offered up the truths about ageing that, half a century earlier, she had offered about the lifestyle of the 1970s intellectual.

However, the unchanging beauty of Garner’s words ties the two together, and I’m grateful that no matter how old I get, and how changed my life might be since I sat in my little college room reading and dreaming about the characters who lived with so much more abandon, I will still be moved by her description of a hot summer day in Melbourne.

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