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Helen Garner, Everywhere I look (Review)

July 21, 2016

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookI was very sad to come to the end of Helen Garner’s latest essay collection, Everywhere I look. It was such a joy – such a joy – to read. Garner ranges across a wide variety of subjects from a kitchen table to Russell Crowe, from some of the darkest things humans do to each other to the beauty of ballet dancers in rehearsal, and she does it in a natural, warm voice that makes you almost feel as if she’s sitting across that kitchen table from you. While it would be cheeky of me to say that I now understand her, this collection provides wonderful insight into the way she thinks, how she goes about the business of living, why she writes the things she does. We come to know her as a human being who muddles through life, making mistakes, questioning herself, confronting challenges, rather than as the literary doyenne she in fact is. In other words, as she always does, she lays herself open.

I call these essays, but some are probably better described as articles or perhaps even columns, and there are a few which read more like collections of jottings or diary entries. Form isn’t the important thing here, it’s the content. The collection comprises 33 pieces, all but three of which have been previously published. Three date back to the 1990s. Many were published in Monthly, and some others in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s not always obvious why they were originally written, but in this collection they have been loosely grouped into six broad thematic groupings, starting with “Part One: White paint and calico”, which is all about homes and things domestic, and ending with “Part Six: In the wings”, which I’d describe as comprising reflections about life and self. The cover, designed by the award-winning WH Chong, is just gorgeous, and I found myself looking at it several times as I read, opening it out to look at the whole front-and-back panorama.

But now, that common challenge of writing about a collection: what to discuss, what to leave out. I am going to leave out one thing, and that’s her discussion of writers and writing, because want to save that for another post. Perhaps I’ll start with some “yes” moments, not that I have to always agree with writers to appreciate them, but affirmation can be nice. There’s her jotting in “When not writing a book” in which she expresses elation over the election of Obama. What an exciting time that was, even for we antipodeans. Her statement – “To think I’m alive when this happened” – is one many of us shared. I remember popping a bottle of bubbly with my patchwork group for the occasion.

There are delightful, often humorous, anecdotes about family life, especially about her grandchildren who now live next door to her, and there are little jewels of description, such as this perfect one of Christmas mornings:

The unnerving silence of Christmas morning. No sound of traffic. Sun lies fresh on everything. Birds sing with unnatural sharpness. The air is still.

And I did love her reference to a criticism of Muriel Spark in “Funk paradise”, another diary style piece:

Apparently her letters make no reference whatsoever to current events. So?

This accusation is also levelled at Jane Austen – for both her novels and letters – the implication being that to be valid you have to be political. I contest that. Austen and Spark write compassionately but incisively about human nature. Let others do politics if they will!

However, the section that grabbed me most was “Part Four: On darkness”. Here she explores the dark sides of human nature through five stories/cases about people who have done terrible things to others. This is subject-matter that many readers shy from, and those who do this tend to make those of us who don’t feel a bit ghoulish. Garner writes in this section about some well-known cases in Australia including the rape-murder of Jill Meagher (“The city at night”) and the murder of Luke Batty by his father (“The singular Rosie”). The fifth and last piece in this section is called “On darkness” and it’s about the Robert Farquharson trial which is the subject of her book, This house of grief (my review). In her opening paragraph she writes:

When the book came out I was struck by the number of interviewers whose opening question was ‘What made you interested in this case?’ It always sounded to me like a coded reproach: was there something weird or peculiar about me, that I would spend seven years thinking about a story like this.

She continues, describing how she would try to come up with “sophisticated explanations” for her curiosity, but eventually tired of being defensive. She outlines the complexity of the case – the ordinary people who behave in ways that even they can’t understand or explain – and asks why this is not worth exploring. She says:

People seem more prepared to contemplate a book about a story as dark as this if the writer comes galloping out with all moral guns blazing. A friend of mine told me that the woman who runs his local bookshop had declared she would, under no circumstances, read my book. Surprised, he asked why. ‘Because’, she replied. ‘I know that nowhere in the book does she say that Robert Farquharson is a monster.’

If he had been a monster, I wouldn’t have been interested in writing about him. The sorts of crimes that interest me are not the ones committed by psychopaths. I’m interested in apparently ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.

This is why I like Garner. She’s generous, openly questioning, tender, but fierce too. And just in case you think she has no “moral guns”, read her piece in the last section, “The insults of age”, in which she describes her reaction to a young teenage girl whom she’d seen intimidating/disrespecting some Asian people. Garner writes:

… I saw the Asian woman look up in fear, and something in me went berserk.

In two strides I was behind the schoolgirl. I reached up, seized her ponytail at the roots and gave it a sharp downward yank. Her head snapped back. In a voice I didn’t recognise I snarled, ‘Give it a rest, darling.’ She twisted to look behind her. Her eyes were bulging, her mouth agape. I let go and she bolted away to join her friends …

This is why I like Garner!

There is so much in this book, lighter stuff too, but I’ll leave those delights for you to discover.

In “My dear lift-rat”, her delightful piece on Elizabeth Jolley, Garner says that she frequently wrote about Jolley’s books “in literary magazines, trying not to go over the top”, and that Jolley would write “formal” thank you letters. “I never knew”, Garner wrote, “whether she really liked them, or if she thought I had missed the point”. If Garner can feel that way about writing reviews (or critiques), then I don’t feel so badly about having the same worries! I sure hope, though, that I haven’t missed her points in this one.

awwchallenge2016Helen Garner
Everywhere I look
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016
227pp.
ISBN: 9781925355369

29 Comments leave one →
  1. ian darling permalink
    July 21, 2016 10:57 pm

    This sounds like such an enjoyable book to read- I love books of essays by a writer I like. Trouble is that I enjoy them so much I tend to gobble!

    • July 22, 2016 7:00 am

      Haha, yes, Ian, that’s a bit of what I did here, I gobbled! But I probably will go back and delve again every now and then I think because there are some things here I want to remember or think more about.

  2. sharkell permalink
    July 21, 2016 11:03 pm

    I have been waitlisted for this book at my library since it came out – I think I’ll have to splash out and buy it – I’ve waited long enough! It sounds like there would be plenty to read and reread in this collection.

    • July 22, 2016 7:02 am

      It wouldn’t be a waste to do so Sharkell. You might enjoy having around to delve into over time. It’s great to hear though that there’s such interest in it.

  3. July 22, 2016 12:12 am

    I saw this one and have wondered about it. Think I’ll give it a try at some point.

    • July 22, 2016 7:35 am

      I suspect you’d like it Guy … I also enjoyed her discussion of various writers, which I’ll share separately.

  4. July 22, 2016 4:13 am

    She sounds like someone I’d love to hang out with! i hope the results of this year’s US presidential election don’t cause you grief. But just in case, what’s your immigration policy and do you have places that get properly cold in winter?

    • July 22, 2016 7:37 am

      Hahaha … I hope so too Stefanie. Of course we have places that get properly cold in winter, that is, properly cold by me standards! I bet the Dashwoods would agree too.

  5. July 22, 2016 7:08 am

    Such a glowing tribute – I too look forward to reading her latest! I’m sure Ms Garner will be delighted by your wonderful review.

    • July 22, 2016 7:39 am

      Oh no Julie, I hope she doesn’t read it! That would make me nervous. Let’s pretend you never said that!

      But yes, do read it.

  6. July 22, 2016 9:19 am

    Do you find that one of the (good) interesting things about Garner is that she is thoughtful about things that men are not thoughtful about? And often nuanced in unexpected ways.

    • July 22, 2016 1:31 pm

      Ah, do I want to go there Bill? She’s certainly thoughtful about the personal and human things, notices the details and appreciates their implications.

  7. Meg permalink
    July 22, 2016 11:14 am

    Hi Sue, I am so pleased you wrote this wonderful blog about Helen Garner. I tell all my friends to read it and it will be one of my face to face book club reads next year. I also love the cover, so much of Helen is in those people she writes about.

    • July 22, 2016 1:35 pm

      Thanks Meg … And I’m so pleased you seem to think I did it justice! There are do many angles you could take talking about it. Hmmm, I wonder if my reading group would be interested in doing it?

  8. July 22, 2016 11:40 am

    Gobbled is the perfect word to describe how I read this book too! And like you, I’m sure I will look back into in a more leisurely and nuanced way from from time to time. It’s a perfect collection of gems.

    • July 22, 2016 1:38 pm

      Funny, Michelle, I haven’t heard anyone say yet they didn’t enjoy this book! I could happily just read her diary entries. So many little gems even in those little snippets.

      • July 22, 2016 1:44 pm

        A few years ago, as part of a charity auction, the Victorian Writers Centre (now called Writers Victoria, probably to avoid the apostrophe problem) sold off one of Garner’s diaries – an original! And I subsequently heard the top bid was only hundreds of dollars, rather than thousands. Amazing.

        • July 22, 2016 4:23 pm

          Wow, wish I’d been there!

          Love the apostrophe comment, Michelle.

  9. July 22, 2016 2:03 pm

    I’ll read this one, go on then.

  10. July 28, 2016 8:54 pm

    It really was a tremendous read wasn’t it?

    I kept this is my work backpack, so that I could only read it one essay at a time during my lunch break. I feel like each piece has had time to sit with me and work its magic.

    I particularly enjoyed the literary appreciation section, and look forward to your views on that too.

  11. July 30, 2016 6:01 pm

    I absolutely adored every syllable of this marvellous book. I was reading it it in tiny bites towards the end because I did not want Garner’s voice to stop talking to me. Thanks so much for your review!

    • July 30, 2016 6:04 pm

      Thanks masalajp. I’m loving hearing from so many people who loved this book. I don’t think any of us wanted it to end, did we?

  12. July 17, 2017 9:51 pm

    I read your latest ‘Monday Musings’, and landed here, Sue, because this book’s cover has got a dog. I am sorry for being this annoying animal-lover. But I just can’t help myself. The links with all things dog kidnap me. 🙂

    I haven’t heard a lot of Helen Garner, but that delicious description on Christmas morning stole my heart. I am going to keep an eye out for this book. And it’s one of the most important reasons why I love visiting your blog. You expand my horizon. Thank you!

    • July 17, 2017 11:49 pm

      I love that the dog drew you in, Deepika, I love animals, and particularly dogs too. We are travelling (in the USA in fact, at present) and always stop to look at dogs being walked in the street.

      Garner is a wonderful writer, and is particularly known for her essays, so do look out for her.

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