Consider Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino

Helen Garner, Cosmo cosmolino

Commenting on my post on Helen Garner’s One day I’ll remember this, Bill (The Australian Legend) wrote that he’d hoped I’d mention Cosmo cosmolino (1992). It’s one of the novels Garner was writing during the period covered by these diaries, and Bill had struggled with it. I don’t blame him because, while I loved reading the novel, my own review written early in this blog is less than wonderful. Cosmo is a very different novel and I didn’t grapple at all well with its tricky themes.

Bill has, in fact, written twice about Cosmo cosmolino, his second drawing from Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay in Reading like an Australian writer (edited by Belinda Castles). I have now read that essay too, so I am going to write a second post on Cosmo – too!

There are two main issues that are tricky with this novel, its form and its content. I’ll start with form, which derives from the fact that the book comprises three pieces/stories: “Recording angel”, “A vigil” and “Cosmo cosmolino”.

But, is it a novel?

I am forgiving (or, wishy-washy, if you prefer) when it comes to questions like this. I think form is and should be a loose thing, and that it should have room to move. Even Bill, who sometimes has strong views on things, said that “If an author, as Garner has done here, declares a collection of pieces to be a novel, then that is how I will read it. But these pieces don’t speak to each other at all. If this is a novel, then as far as I am concerned, it is a failed novel”.

So, Bill was happy, more or less, to accept it as a novel. I was certainly happy to do so because the first two pieces – “Recording angel” and “A vigil” – introduce two of the three main characters in the last story. They also introduce some of the ideas that she further develops, though I didn’t fully grasp them in my review. More on that later in this post. The point is that for me the pieces did speak to each other, albeit oddly, because, for example, the first piece is told first person in Janet’s voice, while the third is told third person with Janet as the protagonist.

Bennett Daylight discusses the form in her essay. She starts by suggesting that she would have broken down the last piece into smaller stories, and

seen the book as a whole as telling the central story through a kaleidoscope of scenes, points of view, small (and large) narratives. I’m thinking particularly of Alice Munro’s early short story collections … in which Munro builds a long narrative about her protagonists like you might a model train, adding stories like carriages until the narrative winds into the distance. The result, to my mind, can be more satisfying than the novel whose every scene is roped to a single central idea.

She then quotes Robert Dessaix who, while praising Garner as “one of our most gifted” writers, said that none of her fictional works were novels. They are “fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to nonfiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage”. He then gets to one of the nubs, the pedestal on which novels are put. Garner writes in her diaries that she needs to free herself “from the hierarchy with the novel on top”. She needs “to devise a form that is flexible and open enough”, wants to “blow out realism while at the same time sinking deeply into what is most real”.

She also writes of “pointless struggles to work my stuff into the shape of a novel, and my determination to write only what it’s personally urgent for me to write” (p. 181). The two urges, it seems, fight each other. She says more but this gives you the gist. I love her engagement with form, though in one sense, it shouldn’t really matter – should it?

Meanwhile, Bennett Daylight is convinced that Cosmo cosmolino is a novel because “what makes a novel a novel is metaphor”, meaning that in a novel it’s “as though life looked in the mirror and saw, not just its reflection, but something behind it”.

“My strange experience”

What is this something? It’s certainly deeper than I was prepared to go in my review, because, to be honest, I was uncertain – and here is why. Bennett Daylight quotes an interview Garner had about the book with, in Garner’s words, “that hard-nosed leftie rationalist Craig McGregor”. In this interview, she was stupid enough “to blurt out my strange experience with the shadowy presence”. Afterwards, she panicked and asked him not to include that part, and while he reassured her he’d hardly mentioned it, this “mysterious visitor” is the backbone of his piece. The responses weren’t positive – “Garner’s got religion, etc”. It taught her, she told Bennett Daylight,

that in Australia you can’t write about experiences of ‘the numinous’ without opening yourself to sneering and cynical laughter. Back then, anyway.

This is the challenge I had with the book. What was the spiritual aspect about? I’ll flip to Bernadette Brennan’s book on Helen Garner, A writing life (my review). She says that the three interlinked stories all concern transformation, and are connected through recurring characters and the presence in each of various forms of angels:

The book’s structure mirrors that of a Christian pilgrimage: “Recording angel” confronts the physicality of a suffering body, “A vigil” enters the underworld to witness death head on, and “Cosmo Cosmolino” offers a sense of possible redemption, perhaps even resurrection. The structure can also be read as a meditation on the past, the present and the future.

Garner writes in her diaries that her main experience of religion is the Holy Spirit:

I don’t understand ‘God’ or even ‘Jesus’, but the Holy Spirit [the “shadowy presence”] has stood behind me on many different days, even though for a long time I was too frightened to acknowledge it or ‘call out to it’. It has visited me and comforted me and become part of me. (p. 160/161)

Bennett Daylight concludes her essay by talking about “the metaphor of belief” that underpins this novel:

Religion or belief is the attempt to impose order where there is none – and surely fiction is the same thing. In fact, from where I’m standing it’s exactly the same thing. I don’t believe in a god or gods, but I do believe in the power of fiction, the power of narrative, the power of metaphor to restore order. A great novel unsettles, then settles – it causes disorder, and then order. Order is restored in Cosmo cosmolino; the metaphor that effects this restoration is a metaphor of belief.

Let’s discuss this definition of “a great novel” another time, but it works here.

As for Garner, what does she say in the diaries? There’s quite a lot, but I’ll just choose these:

I want to write things that push down deeper roots into the archetypal. Things whose separate parts have multiple conections with their own structure. (p.140)

I got to the end of Cosmo. Where is this stuff coming from? The weird state I’m in. I have to apply my intellect but at the same time keep my instincts wide open. I need to hover between these levels. (p. 206)


I’m scared that with Cosmo I’ll come a cropper. (p. 217)

It would be 16 years before she wrote another novel.

For me, Cosmo cosmolino, now read so long ago, remains memorable. Janet and “Recording angel”, in particular, are still vivid. I’d willingly read it again.

Tegan Bennett Daylight
“A big sunny shack: Cosmo cosmolino by Helen Garner”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 26-41
ISBN: 9781742236704

Tegan Bennett Daylight, Six bedrooms (Review)

Tegan Bennett Daylight, Six bedroomsI have just read Tegan Bennett Daylight’s collection of short stories, Six bedrooms, in my quest to read at least some of the Stella Prize shortlist before the announcement of the winner on the 19th of this month. I haven’t read Daylight before – she has written three novels, among other things – so I was glad for the added incentive to read her now. It helped, of course, that Brother Gums and family gave me the book for my birthday!

So, Six bedrooms. It’s a collection of 10 short stories, seven of which have been published previously in literary journals and anthologies. Eight are written in first person, and the other two in third. While the stories are all complete within themselves, as you’d expect, one character, Tasha, appears in four of them, the first, fourth, seventh and tenth. Evenly spaced out in other words, providing a nice sense of continuity and a sort of narrative framework for the whole. That, briefly, is the form of the book, but let’s get now to the content.

Most of the stories could be described as coming-of-age stories, as most of the protagonists are in their teens or early twenties. If you define coming-of-age broadly – that is, as a time of growth, transition and establishing identity – almost all the stories could be described as that. In the last story, “Together alone”, for example, Tasha is 36 years old, but while she’s certainly more “together” than her first appearance at 15 years old, she still has unresolved issues in her life, mainly to do with a missing brother and an ex-husband. This brings me to the epigraph. It’s by Tim Winton, and says “… the past is in us, not behind us. Things are never over.” A truism, you might say, but in this world where “closure” seems to be the thing, it’s worth remembering.

Although only the four Tasha stories are linked by character, there are several themes that recur in the book, besides the coming-of-age one. One is closely related to coming-of-age – the idea of the misfit. How many of us felt we were misfits, had that excruciating sense of feeling out of step with everyone else, only to discover later that those who looked so together felt the same! Tasha, in her first appearance in the book’s opening story “Like a virgin”, goes to a party with her friend Judy. She’s 15 years old, and feels ashamed because they showed everyone else how unable they were to deal with a party. Jane, the younger of two sisters in “Trouble”, feels lonely and awkward, a poor copy of her sister, and despises herself. And so on. Rose in “J’aime Rose”, though, has a different take. She calls herself a misfit, then soon after argues that she isn’t because she “didn’t have the courage”. For her a misfit is one who stands out through, say, “triple-pierced ears” or “a radical devotion to a singer or a style”. A rose by any other name I’d say! Anyhow, misfit or not, Rose, like many of the book’s protagonists, is lonely and unconfident, which leads her, like those other protagonists, to behave selfishly or even spitefully at times. The thing is that it’s all so believable! Unfortunately.

Other recurrent themes or motifs include missing people (parents, in particular, but also siblings, who disappear or die) which can exacerbate outsiderness, lack of sexual confidence, and friendships that survive or don’t under the weight of adolescent self-obsession and inexperience. Tasha and Judy remain friends through the jealousies and little lies to the last story when they are in the thirties, while Sarah and Fern in “Other animals” can’t survive a terrible difference in experience that Sarah doesn’t understand until way later. Daylight captures beautifully here the naive narrator who describes what she sees without having the maturity to understand the shadows beneath.

I enjoyed all the stories, but some stood out more than others. The Tasha stories for example. Daylight doesn’t broadcast the continuity, but provides hints – the name of the friend, the alcoholic but loving mother, the brother – that clue you in to the fact these stories are about the same person.

I also particularly enjoyed the title story, “Six bedrooms”, one of the non-previously-published stories in the book. The six bedrooms refer to a share-house. After all, you couldn’t really have a book about adolescents and young adults without one share-house story! The narrator here is 19-year-old Claire. Daylight builds the story with tight, effective narrative control. The residents of five bedrooms are introduced in the first couple of pages leaving us to wonder about the sixth. We learn about him four pages in. And Claire tells us that she has a friend in the house, with whom she’d moved from a previous house, but it’s clear the friendship is not strong. That too is left hanging, unexplained, until later in the story when we realise there are other perspectives besides Claire’s. Gradually, the relationships and their tensions are developed as Claire tries to find her own way and place. She befriends William, the resident of the sixth bedroom, but it never quite goes the way she’d like:

William sat on the one single chair. I smiled at him but it was as though the smile missed him, went over his head.


I waited for him to touch me. I left my hand lying beside him so he could pick it up, but his hands were busy. He was itchy, and he needed to smoke …


I invented a persona for myself: I was a girlfriend. Almost.

The problem is that she, like other narrators in the book, is naive, and there are things about William that she, in her naiveté, missed completely. Her pain of feeling stupid and alone is palpable.

Ultimately, Six bedrooms is about youth’s painful lessons. Its power lies in the way it captures the small (and not so small) excruciating moments in our lives when we know things aren’t right, but we don’t know how to right them. There are no dramatic resolutions or big light bulb moments, but there are glimmers of a forward momentum in many of the characters’ lives, such as Tasha realising in “Together alone” that “I might have been harder to live with than I thought”. Mostly, though, it’s about accepting that “awkwardness and trouble are part of being alive’’ (“Trouble”), that things are, indeed, never quite over. Another good Stella shortlist choice.

awwchallenge2016Tegan Bennett Daylight
Six bedrooms
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2015
ISBN: 9780857989130