Helen Garner, The children’s Bach
I’ve said a few times now that I rarely reread books, and then go on to write about something I’ve re-read. I must look like a liar, but the fact is that if I’ve liked a book so much that I’ve reread it it’s likely to find its way here. The funny thing is, though, that my reason for rereading The children’s Bach was not so much because I loved it first time around (though I did enjoy it) but because I read a critic who described it as one of the four best short novels – ever! It’s hard to ignore a commendation like that, isn’t it? And so I read it again …
It’s set in Melbourne, and concerns a couple, Athena and Dexter, who lead a self-sufficient life with their two sons, one of whom is severely disabled. This apparently comfortable life is disrupted by the arrival of Elizabeth, from Dexter’s past. With Elizabeth come her sister Vicki, her sometime lover Philip, and his prepubescent daughter Poppy. Through them, Athena and Dexter are drawn into a world whose ideas and values test the foundations of their relationship.*
This sounds like a pretty standard plot, but from it Garner draws something quite special, something tight and marvelously observed, and something, in the way that Garner has, that is brutally honest. This is the thing that I admire about her most – even though I don’t always agree with her: she doesn’t flinch from unpleasant “truths”. And so, in this book, she tackles the challenge of parenting a severely disabled child. While there are people who talk about the joy and meaning a disabled child brings to their lives there are others who feel quite differently. This is the shock at the centre of this book.
Garner introduces a sense of uneasiness right at the beginning with a photo of Tennyson and his family (why Tennyson, I’m not quite sure) which shows them together but not quite together and which is described simply as “the photo of a family”. The photo is old but Dexter keeps sticking it back up again. This beginning is followed by a fairly idealised image of Dexter and Athena as a loving, supportive couple – “she loved him. They loved each other” (p. 4) – and then Garner slowly reveals the cracks. Dexter’s idealisation of Athena is one cause, but the disabled child who holds Athena back, is another. The arrival of Elizabeth and her entourage – with their different and challenging ways of viewing the world – is just the catalyst.
Athena’s harsh attitude regarding Billy, her disabled son, is psychologically real, but is shocking to see in a character who is idealised as the earth-mother. Our readerly assumptions take a knock! Early in the story Athena looks at handprinted cards of places for rent:
… Athena was … scanning the window covered in handprinted cards on which people advertised rooms to let in their rented houses. Athena lived, for as long as it took to read a card, in each sunny cottage, each attractive older-style flat, spacious house, quaint old terrace, large balcony room with fireplace, collective household with thriving veggie garden. Her children dematerialised, her husband died painlessly in a fall from a mountain. What curtains she would sew, what private order she would establish and maintain, what handfuls of flowers she would stick in vegemite jars, how sweetly and deeply she would sleep, and between what fresh sheets.
This could be typical daydreaming but it’s pretty specific in detail (children dematerialised, husband dead): it’s Garner telling us that Athena feels trapped and is ready for change. Then Philip comes along and she is attracted to him; she’s not morally repulsed the way Dexter is by his behaviour: “Dexter lay rigid as a board … but Athena slept, and dreamed that she was in a garden….”.
And so, Garner writes, “The edifice crumbles”. The cracks have been there, in the edifice, but Dexter is (has been) oblivious to them. He’s a kind man but he’s pretty unaware of how other people feel; he expects them all to see life as simply, as happily as he does. But this is not the case – as he finds out …
All this is told in tight, expressive language. Here is a delicious description of Dexter’s mother:
Like many women of her age whose opinions, when they were freshly thought and expressed, had never received the attention they deserved, Mrs Fox had slid away into a habit of monologue, a stream of mild words which concealed the bulk of thought and knowledge as babbling water hides submerged boulders. (p. 101)
Garner focuses on the gap between appearance and reality, particularly regarding the problems of idealisation (of self and/or of other). Athena is idealised but is shown to have feet of clay; Dexter is also idealised and idealises himself – until his own fall from grace: “he was in its moral universe now, and he could never go back”.
We can read this book in two – not totally exclusive – ways. One is psychological and relates to the realisation of self, particularly for Athena. The other is social and relates to role definitions, again particularly for Athena in terms of the expectations of her as wife and mother. One of the things that Garner tends to do well, in fact, is explore the point where social expectations of how we should feel meet and often clash with our real emotional selves. We see this clearly in The spare room where the character Helen shocks us with her anger at her dying friend.
I have really only touched the surface of this book – there is the music motif to consider, and the conflict of values represented by the intrusion of Elizabeth and her entourage into Dexter and Athena’s world – but I have talked about some of the issues that grabbed my attention and that, I think, will do!
* This is, essentially, the plot summary I wrote a couple of years ago for the Wikipedia article on the book.
The children’s Bach
Penguin Modern Classics, 2008 (first published 1984)