I’m gearing up to do the last lot of work on my book, which involves, as it always does, reading other writers to work out how to fix things and make it better. A friend told me to pick up Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look so I could figure out how to tighten my prose. It was good advice.
These are gorgeous pieces, shaped and buffed into brilliant little stones, bristling with an electricity that comes from Garner’s quickness, pique and furtive passions. It’s there in ‘Whisper and Hum’ when, despite an unappealing holiday on Vanuatu which coalesced in a repugnance for ‘a certain parasitic creeper that flourished aggressively, bowing the treetops down and binding them to each other in a dense, undifferentiated mat of choking foliage’, Garner comes across a Melanesian man ‘playing a tiny stringed instrument … just to keep himself company’. Inspired, she buys a ukulele and instruction book when she gets home, but ‘put them in a cupboard under a pile of blankets and said nothing about them to anyone’. Her joy in the instrument is subterranean from by a fear of mockery and, later, marriage to a ‘severe modernist’ but it rises to the surface in her admission, ‘I love it as I would any harmless little creature. I love to hear it whisper and hum’. As it does when, hearing ‘the faintest, airiest twanging sound’, she realises that ‘a breeze coming up the hill from Bondi was puffing over the windowsill and drawing the hem of the calico curtain back and forth over the open strings’. And people overlook the domestic in fiction because they think it’s dull!
On that note, this is a book about places and houses, unsurprisingly, for Garner moved house twenty-six times she writes in ‘White Paint and Calico’. There is a paean to Monee Ponds in ‘Suburbia’; the use of a table as a metaphor for a body at a somewhat settled stage of life; the labour of packing, which is likened to childbirth. And children run in and out of the houses. They call for Nanny; act out cowboys; discuss farts; crawl into her bed after a bad dream and sleep diagonally, cramming her into a corner and causing her to complain, ‘God damn it, I think at 5 a.m., this is worse than being married’. It’s endearing.
When I read This House of Grief, I admired Garner’s refusal to commit to a black-and-white version of events. There is always another side to the story, and she strove to render this with humanity. I don’t doubt it was hard, exhausting work (writing a book requires huge emotional labour at the best of times, let alone trying to negotiate the complexities of a court case), but Garner’s wry humour still prevailed. Two of the jurors were young fellows who became chummy as the case went on:
‘He and another languid youth became inseparable. They entered and left the court together, exchanging whispered comments, and muffling their amusement. It was a bromance. Much later, when the journalists were herded into their dismal office so the deliberating jurors could take the air, these two romped together in the sunny yard like puppies’.
I laughed with delight when I read this, and I laughed throughout Everywhere I Look as well. Often that laughter was prompted by the brutal honesty of children, as in ‘Lift-Rat’.
‘Last week I had my hair cut. I was pleased, in the limited way one dares to be at this age. The next day my five-year-old granddaughter came home from kinder. She studied me up and down, and said with a crooked smile, ‘I don’t like your haircut, Nanna. You look like Luke Skywalker. It’s dumb at the sides.’
I sobered up as I read on. The essay segued into an elaboration of Garner’s correspondence and friendship with Elizabeth Jolley, but the wry tone was held throughout, appearing, like a punctuation mark, at the end:
‘[i]t was too late for me to say goodbye, or to thank [Jolley] for the last sentence of The Orchard Thieves, where an old woman points out comfortingly to her daughter that the difference between a bad haircut and a good one is only a week’.
I met Garner at an ASAL mini-conference in Armidale. This was one of the loveliest conferences I’ve ever been to. I’d had two guiltily homesick months writing in Rome and I was glad to see my parents again. It was a beautiful summer, in the way New England summers are – cool, with long, low light in the evenings. An Australian friend whom I’d met at another conference in Prato, who now lives in Oxford, was also unexpectedly there, and it was lovely to see her. Amidst the presentations, we jumped in a bus for a tour of places significant to Judith Wright, including the home in which she was born. ‘In a homestead of deep, flowering verandahs,’ Garner writes, ‘we were welcomed by female relatives with the long legs and quiet authority of horsewomen, not to mention the ability to knock up an airy sponge’. Afterwards there was tea from a giant teapot (used for tennis parties) beneath a shady tree and a visit to the tiny local church.
Always sensitive to people’s body language (necessary for someone who is deaf), I was wary of the forcefield radiating from Garner tight shoulders, resolute refusal of eye contact and endlessly moving hands. It seemed to me that this was a women who didn’t want to be spoken to. If I was famous, I reasoned, I’d probably be tired of groupies too. I was grateful, then, when my friend’s mother introduced me to Garner and I was able to express my admiration for This House of Grief and to tell her of my research on Rosa Praed and Maud. She suggested that I read Far from the Tree, which I did, and enjoyed.
There’s much more of which I could write of this collection: Garner’s surprising finding about her primary school teacher; her relationships with other writers, both tentative and fierce; her brilliant essay on ageing, but really, you should pick up the book yourself and explore and savour it. In the meantime, it’s time to start the last bit of my book, and to try and make my sentences ping.
This is my eighth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.