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Helen Garner, The children’s Bach

March 30, 2010

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.

Helen Garner
The children’s Bach
Penguin Modern Classics, 2008 (first published 1984)
ISBN: 0869140299

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Sue permalink
    March 30, 2010 13:49

    You’ve done it again! I’ll have to read it now 🙂

    • March 30, 2010 16:27

      You will … and it’s very short. Have you read other Garners?

      • Sue permalink
        March 31, 2010 08:22

        Yes I liked Monkey grip back in the day, and her non-fiction titles should be on my list too. However I’ve been cross with Helen Garner ever since the VSTA called us out on strike in 1973 when the Education Dept. of Victoria tried to sack her for teaching sex education in her History classes. Rookie teacher that I was, I thought parents were entitled to expect just History in History classes, and didn’t like Union heavies telling me what to think. She sure started something though! Later the same year I taught Indonesian instead of French in my French classes as a protest over nuclear tests on Mururoa, and a friend of mine was sacked for repeatedly starting his Maths classes with “What would you like to talk about today?”. Sorry! Should start my own blog 🙂

        • Lesley permalink
          January 13, 2011 18:33

          It’s 37 years ago.. maybe time to stop being quite so cross

  2. March 31, 2010 01:51

    I’ve not heard of Helen Garner before. This book sounds really good. Thanks for such a great write up and for bringing it to my attention!

  3. March 31, 2010 04:49

    I hope lying isn’t genetic…

    I love the quote from p101 – even just the phrase of having “freshly thought” ideas/opinions. I feel like I need to rethink my tendency to shy away from short stories!

  4. March 31, 2010 05:57

    Fascinating! I am not sure its quite up my street but is obviously a very worthwhile book – “one of the four perfect short novels”. And you write for Wikipedia too? I’ve only edited – book blogging is quite demanding enough for me!

  5. March 31, 2010 07:50

    Stefanie: She’s well worth giving a go. Her latest, The spare room, was reviewed by a few international bloggers (including, as I recollect, dovegreyreader).

    Hannah: This one is a short novel – not a short story – so perhaps you can read it without breaking your short story ban!

    Tom: if you look at the Wikipedia article, I name the four – one is Ford Maddox Ford’s The good soldier. I wrote a lot for Wikipedia in my first year of retirement and have created over 30 useful level articles (not just “stubs”). Most are in Australian literature areas, and the rest are Australian film and other bits of Australiana including a couple of Lighthouses (because I’d taken photos of them and they weren’t there). Since blogging, my Wikipedia work has, I admit, ended up being more editing! I feel that when I read an Australian novel and it’s not there I should created the article, but I have managed it less in recent times!

  6. March 31, 2010 08:41

    Sue, you absolutely should. It’s good fun. For a completely different blog – by an ex-teacher – have a look at Ms Textual is my blog roll. She’s good fun – does books, crafts and other bits and pieces.

    As for Helen Garner – the thing I admire about her is that she’s not scared to be controversial and we need people like that. I’ve read The first stone, and Joe Cinque’s consolation. Rivetting reads – particularly the latter – but both made me SO-O-O mad!

    • Sue permalink
      March 31, 2010 09:09

      Yes, it’s time to forgive her for 1973. What’s more likely to make me cross these days is the way we still create sacred cows – in the form of generally accepted and unchallenged ways of perceiving and thinking around some issues which limit our understanding – and it’s not just about “political correctness”. You’re right, we need our Helens.

  7. April 3, 2010 21:50

    I like Garner’s work and am waiting for the new Penguin Modern Classics edition to become available in the UK. At the moment they’ve only released Monkey Grip (which I already have in one of those Orange Penguin editions)…

    • April 3, 2010 22:28

      Funnily enough I have not read a lot of her fiction … though I have Cosmo Cosmolino next to me bed. I think in fact that the only fiction I’ve read of hers is The spare room and The children’s Bach. One day I really should read Monkey Grip. Have you read any of her non-fiction?

      • April 4, 2010 02:46

        I’ve only read the First Stone, which I loved because, as you state above, she doesn’t shy away from unpleasant “truths”. I know she received a lot of flak over that book, because so many thought she should automatically have taken the women’s side of the story. Admittedly I read it about 15 years ago, so I wonder if I would still love it to the same extent now. I guess, at the time, those kind of campus scandals were unheard of, or certainly not spoken about, but times have moved on a lot since then… It may all feel incredibly naive now… ?

  8. April 4, 2010 08:18

    Kimbofo … I was one that was angry BUT I still thought it was a great book to read. The point was, to me, that the Master of the College was in a position of power. Maybe the girls over-reacted but the college didn’t take them seriously so it escalated beyond what it should have, didn’t it?

  9. lesleysutherland permalink
    April 28, 2010 15:43

    The Children’s Bach is an uncannily “perfect” book in construction, characterisation and style. One of my favorites ever since I first read it, and whole sentences from it stick in my mind.

    • April 29, 2010 00:33

      Thanks Lesley for reading this and commenting. I’d love to know which sentences stick in your mind, in particular, and why you think that is.

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