I 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 I 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 us 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.