You are never too old to try something new – and so it was that my 30-year-old reading group tried something new for our April meeting. The idea was that we would all read Garner, but our individual choice of Garner. We’ve discussed five Garners over the years, and many had read other Garners besides those, so we thought it might be fun for us to all read what we like – from her large oeuvre of novels, short stories, screenplays, essays and other short non-fiction, and longform non-fiction – and then see what conclusions we might draw.
It worked well – I think. At least, the discussion was lively and engaged.
So, what did we read?
- Monkey grip (1977) (x2)
- The children’s Bach (1984) (x2) (my review)
- The last days of chez nous and Two friends (1992) (my review)
- The feel of steel (2001)
- Everywhere I look (2016) (x2) (my review)
- True stories (2017)
- A writing life: Helen Garner and her work, by Bernadette Brennan (2017) (my review)
A good spread in some senses but not in others. It includes two of her five novels, her two screenplays, three collections of her short non-fiction (essays and the like), and the not-a-biography-literary-portrait. It does not include any of her short fiction (like Postcards from Surfers) (my review) or her longform non-fiction (like This house of grief) (my review). It was pretty clear, I’d say, that most didn’t want to confront the unpleasantness of books like Joe Cinque’s consolation and This house of grief, though we did discuss Joe when it came out.
The reasons we chose our books were diverse. Some of us, including me who did the screenplays, chose books we already owned. Some chose books they’d read and wanted to reassess (like Monkey Grip), while another chose Monkey Grip because she hadn’t read it and felt it was now “part of our culture.” One music-lover chose The children’s Bach because it was short and referenced music, while another chose The feel of steel because there were only two options at her secondhand books source and she didn’t want to read the other (Joe Cinque’s consolation.) One chose the 2017 compilation True stories because it represents 50 years of Garner’s short non-fiction writing. And one chose the literary portrait because she’d read a lot of Garner, and wanted to find out more about her.
What common threads did we find?
It wasn’t hard to find common threads in Garner – which is not to suggest that we think reading her is boring!
The overriding thread was that she draws heavily from her life, even for works that aren’t autobiographical. We agreed that she’s present, one way or another, in most of her writing, including her longform non-fiction works, such as Joe Cinque’s consolation.
Another thread was that she is “searingly honest”, “will have a go at everything”, “is not afraid of looking an idiot”. This honesty, we felt, applies both to the topics she chooses and to her way of exploring them. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve regularly made this “honest” comment about Garner.
The third main thread that most of us commented on was her writing. We agreed that she’s a wonderful stylist, but beautifully spare too. Spare, though, doesn’t mean plain. One put it perfectly when she praised Garner’s “word pictures”.
Over the course of the evening, excerpts were read – to show her writing skill and/or her ability to capture life (not to mention her sense of humour).
The waiter had a face like an unchipped statue. (The children’s Bach)
He waltzed the car from lane to lane with big flourishes of the steering wheel. (The children’s Bach)
Everyone looks at her, surprised. She has quietly dropped her bundle. (The last days of chez nous)
I knew I couldn’t be the only person in the world who’s capable of forgetting the contents of a novel only minutes after having closed it. (from The feel of steel)
And long live the Lydias of this world, the slack molls who provide the grit in the engine of the marriage plot; for without them it would run so smoothly that the rest of us would fall into despair. (referencing Pride and prejudice, in “How to marry your daughters”, from Everywhere I look)