When I returned to seriously reading Australian writers back in the 1980s, there were four women writers who caught my attention, and I have loved them ever since. They were Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007), Thea Astley (1925-2004), Olga Masters (1919-1986) and Helen Garner (b. 1942). Garner, the youngest by a couple of decades, is the only one still here, still writing novels, short stories, non-fiction and journal articles. I say I love her, but I can’t say I always agree with her. In fact, sometimes she makes me mad – but I admire her honesty and love her writing.
Cosmo cosmolino is not her most recent work. It was published in 1992 and has been on my TBR pile since my brother gave it to me in 1995. How embarrassing! But it finally managed to scramble to the top and I’m glad it did. It’s an intriguing book: it looks like two short stories (“Recording angel” and “Vigil”) and a novella (“Cosmo cosmolino”), but nowhere on the cover or the title page does it say “a collection of short stories”. This means, I think, that we are meant to see it as a novel.
So, how does it work as a novel? Each story would, I’m sure, stand perfectly well alone, but the two short stories also work as back stories to the novella. The tricky thing though is that the connections between these three are only obvious if you are an attentive reader – or, if you re-read it. For me it was a bit of both. I got some of the connections first time around, and others when I flicked through it to prepare this review. This is not a big problem but there is more depth if you have “got” the back stories when you read the final story.
And so, what are the three stories?
- “Recording angel”. A recently separated woman (who is clearly Janet in the final story) visits an old friend and his wife in Sydney. This friend is seriously ill with brain cancer. He has not only been an important support and rescuer for her but the one who has “recorded” her life. And, he is never backward about telling her his view of what that is. She doesn’t always like or agree with this view, but she nonetheless fears the possibility that in sickness he will “forget everything” and that she will thereby lose an important connection with herself. There is a brief mention in this story of Ursula, who is the mother of the girl in the second story.
- “Vigil”. A young woman, who is clearly “out of it” and waiting for her father to rescue her, has a boyfriend Ray(mond), who appears to be there more for the “good times” than for a mutually supportive relationship. When things go wrong, he’s not there for the count. This, we discover in the final story, is something he’s been trying to rectify ever since.
- “Cosmo Cosmolino”. Three rather lonely people – the aforementioned Janet and Ray plus the rather fey artist, Maxine – find themselves sharing Janet’s house. It’s an uneasy grouping. Ray is waiting for his big brother Alby (who once lived in Janet’s house) to arrive and take him away; Maxine would like a baby but is running out of time; and Janet is recovering from a broken marriage and doesn’t really know what she wants.
These are not strongly plot-driven stories. However, quite a bit happens on the emotional front, and this is Garner’s real subject.
Which brings us to the themes
Taken together, these stories are about the muddles people get into, particularly regarding their relationships with each other. Poor decisions, missed opportunities and the never-ending seeking for meaningful connection are the stuff of her fiction. But there is a departure in this book: the introduction of a spiritual (and at times magical) element, often involving some sense of “visitation”.
In the first story, the distraught woman is visited at the end by “a small, serious, stone-eyed angel of mercy”. In the second story Ray is dragged into a rather ghoulish underworld-like scene, after which he is told “You’ll be right … Things’ll be different now”. And in the final story there are all sorts of hints of spiritual happenings, including the “dark column” that shadows Janet, and Maxine’s “magical realist” flight “into the blinding upper sky” where “nameless souls and sacraments outrageously disport themselves”.
It all feels very un-Garner-like. She is usually firmly grounded in the real world of messy relationships where people struggle to connect and find meaning. But I should have been prepared: the novel’s epigraph from Rilke reads “Every angel is terrible”. “Terrible”, of course, has two meanings, and I suspect Garner is playing on both here – on the fear angels engender and the awe. As this paradox implies, there is no suggestion here of easy answers but more of possibilities. Here is Janet at the end:
Our minds are not hopeful, thought Janet; but our nerves are made of optimistic stuff.
I was intrigued by the use of “nerves” rather than “souls” or “spirits” given what had gone before, but I rather like her use of that word. It’s effectively ambiguous.
Finally, the style
The thing that marks Garner out for me is her expressive language. Her books are rarely long. This isn’t because she doesn’t have much to say but because she doesn’t waste words. Read this:
… The heart of the house was broken. It ought to have been blown up and scraped off the surface of the earth.
But houses as well as their owners must soldier on …
… and the architraves had lost their grip on the walls, and slouched this way and that …
and, finally, this:
The room contracted around Ray again, fitting itself tightly to the shape of him, squeezing …
I love the atmosphere and emotion conveyed by language like this. Garner uses a lot of imagery and symbolism – but never simply. Birds, for example, can augur wonder and hope, or, particularly when “the failure bird” appears, something completely different. There are also biblical allusions, such as when Ray denies three times that he knew his girlfriend. No wonder he’s dragged into the underworld for a bit of shock therapy! From beginning to tend, the language never sways from conveying a sense of things being awry because the characters’ lives are so.
Cosmo Cosmolino is one of those books that is both accessible and challenging – and that is just the sort of book I like to read.
Ringwood, Vic: McPhee Gribble, 1992