Helen Garner, Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987 (#BookReview)

Book coverThe opening session of last November’s inaugural Broadside Festival featured Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein about her recently published Yellow notebook, the first volume of her edited diaries. It was an excellent, intelligent conversation. Garner came across as the forthright writer she is, one who fearlessly exposes difficult and unpleasant things, alongside joys and triumphs.

The epigraph she chose for her diaries is therefore not surprising:

We are here for this–to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. (Primo Levi, The periodic table)

Certainly, in Yellow notebook, Garner both stands some blows and hands a few out. She admits to many mistakes. She allows herself to be vulnerable. She may have cut a lot, as she told Krasnostein, but she clearly didn’t sanitise. Her aim was to select what others might find interesting. She didn’t rewrite, only changing (or adding) something if it would otherwise have been meaningless. A diary, she said, “has no voiceover, unlike a memoir”. That is, a diary contains what you did/felt at the time without the benefit of later reflection; she had to accept herself – both hurting others and being hurt – as she was at the time of writing. This gave her “fellow-feeling” with others.

She also decided not to identify people. She uses initials, such as M for her daughter, F for her husband at the time. Some of these people are, of course, easily identifiable for anyone who knows her biography, but I think there is still value in taking this approach. In this spirit, I decided not to investigate beyond what I already knew about her life.

The yellow notebook has a lot to offer Garner lovers. For what is quite a short book, its content is wide-ranging. It includes observations from life around her (as you’d expect from a writer), snippets of conversations (both overheard and her own), the occasional news item, stories from her life, thoughts about other writers, and of course reflections on her own writing. We are introduced to her love of music, and her interest in religion. We hear about her marriage break-up and her all-encompassing love of her daughter. All this reveals a messy person – someone who can be wise at times, and immature at others, who can be confident but also excruciatingly insecure, who can be unkind but also warm and generous, a person, in other words, like most of us, except most of us don’t lay the worst of ourselves quite so bare.

I could give examples of all of the above – and I should, because there’s glorious sentence after glorious sentence – but I want to focus on her writing life. For the rest, do read the book yourself.

“thinking voluptuously of the stories I’m going to write”

Part of understanding a writer is knowing who they read and admire. The writer Garner mentions most in this volume is Elizabeth Jolley. While Jolley and Garner are, in some ways, quite different writers, they have a lot in common. Both don’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of human behaviour. Sometimes Garner simply quotes Jolley – as we do when a writer reminds us of something we’re experiencing. Sometimes she shares little anecdotes about Jolley, but other times she comments on Jolley’s writing, even when referring to another writer!

‘Cod seemed a suitable dish for a rejected one and I ate it humbly without any kind of sauce or relish.’ –Barbara Pymm, Excellent women. This is Elizabeth Jolley’s tone and it made me laugh out loud.

Elizabeth Jolley makes me laugh out loud too. Garner also loves Jane Austen. She writes:

Mansfield Park. She never tells you anything about the appearance of her characters. As if they were moral forces. I love it.

You can see why I love Garner. She, Jolley and Austen all get to the heart of humans, incisively – and with wit. Garner writes about being rejected:

My short story was rejected by the Bulletin because it contained four-letter words. A letter from Geoffrey Dutton: ‘It pains me to have to knock this back … it’s you at your best.’ Thanks a lot. I suppose he’s a skilled writer of rejection letters.

Other writers Garner mentions include, randomly, Frank Moorhouse, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, Tim Winton, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, DH Lawrence (who “uses the same word over and over till he makes it mean what he needs it to”), EM Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Henry James, James Joyce, Doris Lessing, Christina Stead (whom, she discovers, is “a visonary”), Randolph Stow, Rosa Capiello, and Les Murray:

The infuriating accuracy and simplicity of his images – birds that ‘trickle down through’ foliage. Of course, I think, this is what they do – why didn’t I know how to say it?

Four of Garner’s own books are published during the ten years covered by these diaries, the novels Moving out (1983) and The children’s Bach (1984) (my review), and short story collections, Honour; and Other people’s children (1980) and Postcards from Surfers (1985) (my review).

She shares many of her struggles and challenges in writing The children’s Bach, in particular:

… each morning I set out for my office weak with fear. I will never be a great writer. The best I can do is write books that are small but oblique enough to stick in people’s gullets.


This flaming book is jammed again. I feel my ignorance and fear like a vast black hole.


I’m scared to go into my office in case I can’t make things up.


Went to work and fiddled around for half an hour, then began to properly feel it come … Delirious I ran downstairs and bought myself a pastie …

She shares her thoughts about writing, such as

About writing: meaning is in the smallest event. It doesn’t have to be put there: only revealed.

This is so Austen, too.

More broadly, she also speaks of critics, awards, and readers. It’s engaging and heart-rending all at once – and probably applicable to many writers.

Finally, she reflects on the value of art and on the creation process. Describing the experience of a painter finishing a portrait, Garner writes:

The miracle of making something that wasn’t there before. Pulling something out of thin air.

It’s that capacity that impresses someone like me. I’m sorry for the pain writers (and other creators) endure, but I’m so glad they are prepared to do it. I look forward to Volume 2, and beyond.

Challenge logoHelen Garner
Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2019
ISBN: 9781922268143

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

19 thoughts on “Helen Garner, Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987 (#BookReview)

  1. She is superb. Has always been a writer I would have loved to be able to emulate had I ever had the talent. Mostly for her wonderful reality writings: The First Stone; Joe Cinque’s Consolation. How does a writer manage to make her work so appealing with such awful circumstances and without joyful endings ?!

  2. Hi Sue, we can only ask for more. She is brilliant! Helen Garner should be of Australia’s National Living Treasure..

  3. Hmm OK Sue I’ll put a reserve on this at the library – I like Garner’s writing (but wouldn’t like to cross her), looked at this in the book store here and wasn’t prepared to pay over thirty dollars for someone’s diary notes…I’ll reserve judgment on this one!

    • I should have said, I think Sue, that letters and diaries are often really only for aficionados. I wouldn’t recommend Jane Austen’s letters to most who love her novels, for example. In other words, I don’t know whether you will like this or not, but for me these diary notes were great reading on several levels. Let me know what you think!

      • Thanks Sue. I do often like this kind of thing (I like to learn how writers work!) – but this book was very brief for the cost… I didn’t like Joe Cinque’s Consolation, I have real issues with her subjective take on that case and she has admitted her close relationship with the Cinques affected her judgment, and I didn’t much like The First Stone for similar reasons – but I love her short stories, Monkey Grip, and Everywhere I Look was delightful, as was The Spare Room (the last two probably my favourites). She is certainly frank about things in her character that she doesn’t like and I admire that! She’s a most interesting writer. I’ve put on a reserve as I didn’t realise the library actually had the book & someone has it on loan. Thank you for the review!

        • I actually agree with you re Joe Cinque and The first stone … but I say it differently. I loved Joe Cinque. The writing is great, the story she tells is wrenching and clear. I just didn’t fully go with her because of the subjectivity.

          In other words, my response to Garner is that I don’t aways agree with her, but I love her writing, her honesty, her fearlessness, even though she has made me mad mad mad at times.

  4. Thank you for the happy Broadside reminder – it was an excellent session. I had really hoped that Broadside was going to be an annual event. Now I’m really hoping that COVID hasn’t derailed it completely, never to be repeated.

    • Yes, exactly my thought as I was writing this post Kate … it would be really sad wouldn’t it. These festivals tend to need to get some impetus going and to have this happen so early in its life is a real shame. Fingers crossed.

  5. Yes well said Sue about Garner’s subjectivity. I have come across several highly literate, intelligent readers who maintain that Anu Singh was evil (and don’t know about her evidently well documented history of psychiatric illness) and who don’t know that one person was split into several characters in The First Stone – however, on reflection, I realize this is probably the reader’s fault, rather than Garner’s. So your point is taken! Interesting conversation thank you! (grin!)

    • Sometimes it is the reader’s fault, I agree, Sue. Garner dropped enough hints about Anu Singh for anyone reading the book with any depth to see there was a complex story there. What happened to Joe Cinque was horrendous, and should not have happened. However, one of the things I remember was that Anu’s parents were concerned about her and contacted the university, but they basically said – if I remember correctly – that she was an adult now and that they didn’t have that sort of responsibility (like schools have, for example). One of the big issues in that book was duty of care some of which Garner explored but it was more layered than she did. Because of the horror of the whole situation, it was a very hard book to discuss rationally with people, I found.

  6. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #130 – Book Jotter

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