Helen Garner, Postcards from Surfers

Helen Garner is a fiercely honest writer – and a prolific one too. She has written novels, short stories, essays and non-fiction books. All are generally well-acclaimed, though not always without controversy (as I mentioned in my recent Monday musings). Certainly, I haven’t always agreed with her … but I do admire her honesty and the quality of her writing. The book I’m reviewing here, Postcards from surfers, is a collection of short stories and provides an excellent introduction to her writing and her (fictional, anyhow) concerns.

The collection was first published in 1985, but it has been recently rereleased (2010) by Penguin in their Popular Penguins at a Perfect Price series. Penguin also did an edition in 2008. That says something, I think, about the standing of this collection.

Unlike the last short story collection I reviewed, Leah Swann’s Bearings, this one takes its name from one of the stories in the book, the first to be precise. There is nothing in my copy to indicate whether the stories were written for this collection or whether some or all had been published before. The Resident Judge in her review said that several of the stories had appeared elsewhere before being collected here. I’d like to know when and where: I’m one of those people who always read that part of the front or end matter for short story collections.

Anyhow, on with the stories. There are 11 of them and while there is an overall theme – the theme that we expect of Garner, that is love and relationships, particularly from the point of view of failure and loss – they are surprisingly (and wonderfully) varied. They vary in length from the little 4-page “The dark, the light” to more hefty first one (the title story) that runs for over 20 pages. The point of view varies: six are told in first person, and five in third person. So does the voice, from a girl child to a male drunk in a bar, from a female friend to a rejected lover. And the style varies. This was its most surprising aspect for me. There is, for example, the seamless flow across place, time and ideas of the first story (which is the more typical Garner), the disjointed vignettes of “The life of art” chronicling a long standing friendship, and the nicely sustained drunken first person rave of “All those bloody young Catholics”.

The subject matter varies too. The title story is about an adult woman coming to visit her retired parents and aunt at Surfers Paradise, leaving a broken relationship and a not fully successful life behind her. I was ready for something more discontented in this story, but the sense we’re given is that she’s matured and has learnt to be content with (tolerant of, perhaps) her imperfect family:

If I speak they pretend to listen, just as I feign attention to their endless looping discourses: these are our courtesies: this is love. Everything is spoken, nothing is said.

(Doesn’t that have a lovely flow to it? Garner’s writing is delicious.) Being Garner, several are about broken or past relationships, but there are also stories dealing more generally with families and parenting (“Little Helen’s Sunday afternoon” and “A happy story”) and friendship (“The life of art”).

I once heard Garner in an interview express admiration for the way Elizabeth Jolley reused and retold stories. I felt (though my memory may be failing me here) that she admired Jolley’s risk-taking in doing this (would it irritate or bore readers?) as well as her ability to spin more out of a character or situation. It seems Garner decided that if Jolley could do it, so could she. There is a character, a previous lover, Philip, who appears twice in this collection. He sounds very much like the Philip in Cosmo cosmolino. He represents the lost true love and often appears in her work (under that name or others). Where he is, some pain is usually there too. Here are two excerpts from “Civilisation and its discontents”:

He [Philip] woke with a bright face. ‘I feel unblemished’, he said, ‘when I’ve been with you’. This is why I loved him, of course: because he talked like that, using words and phrases that most people wouldn’t think of saying.


I wanted to say to him, to someone, ‘Listen, listen, I am hopelessly in love’. But I hung on. I knew I had bought it on myself, and hung on until the spasm passed.

Helen Garner wears her emotions openly. She’s never afraid to hang out the dirty laundry, to show the darker, more unpleasant sides of human relationships – the selfishness, the jealousy, the unkindness, and of course the pain – but it is always underpinned by a willingness to understand and accept our humanity rather than condemn it. Garner’s world is very much the real world. It’s not hard, I think, to find something in it you recognise (whether you like it or not!).

Helen Garner
Postcards from Surfers
Camberwell: Penguin Books, 2010 (orig. 1985)
ISBN: 9780143204909

POSTSCRIPT: I wrote and scheduled this a couple of weeks before my Monday musings post. When I came back to check it I was rather relieved to find that I had not contradicted myself.

10 thoughts on “Helen Garner, Postcards from Surfers

  1. Is there some sort of Helen Garner festival going on that I don’t know about? Reading Matters just had a review of a non-fiction book by Garner, Joe Cinque’s Consolation.

  2. Oh, how I would love to one day write something that someone would describe as “delicious”! Until then, I shall settle for reading others’ such language 🙂

  3. I have mixed feelings about short stories – it certainly takes a good writer to carry them off, and I find they work best where there is a consistent theme or style, suggesting that the volume was planned as a whole rather than just a collection of random writings – so like you I look for some clue about the provenance of the stories in a collection. This sounds pretty good from your review. David Vann resuses characters and situations and it can work well if the reader gets a sense of seeing things from different perspectives

  4. Hi! I just finished my second reading of The Life of Art and I was hoping I could get your opinion on some things. It was a very strange experience for me, reading it, as it was so disjointed yet so clear and beautiful as well. There were many points that stuck to me, like her reference to the man and the sudden “but that’s another story.” The man reappears again, but that scene is still quite elusive. Another point that struck me was when her friend ran out of the store crying after serving a particular woman (who was apparently a stranger).

    Do you think this man sexually assaulted her or am I pulling this out of nothing. The elusive references to the man are suggestive of this. Along with references to “before” and “after” feminism. And when her friend ran out crying, the narrator says “She began to tell me about… but it doesn’t matter now.” So from that I’m thinking that perhaps her friend was in a relationship (engaged, in fact) with that man, and he assaulted her, and they split, and he remarried, and SOMEHOW, the woman he remarried was served by the narrator’s friend at the checkout. Her friend must’ve noticed the ring she wore, the same ring that SHE wore when SHE was engaged to the man.

    The reason why I think it was sexual assault, in addition to the references to feminism and men, is the vignette where “[Her] friend came out of the surgery. … ‘I can’t sit down,’ said my friend. ‘He put a great bolt of gauze up me.’ This was in the 1960s; before feminism.”

    I still can’t figure out all those references to before and after feminism. But I would love to hear your thoughts — this is very interesting for me. I’ve never read so deeply into a short story before (that is, when I wasn’t made to).

    • Good questions Natasha, short stories are wonderful to explore. Unfortunately it’s been five years since I read this, and I’m currently in a coach north of Port Augusta while my book is back in Canberra, so I can’t look at this to see what I think. Good luck with nutting it out.

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