Helen Garner Watch #1

Reviews and Commentary

Libby Brooks, in "The Guardian", looks at the attention Helen Garner has received and the perceptions that her latest novel, The Spare Room, is based on her own life. She puts the whole idea into perfect context.

It's a beautiful work: the prose is clean and the probing of the duties of friendship subtle. But I also know that a version of Nicola existed in reality - Helen did have a sick friend who came to stay with her, and subsequently died. But Helen's fictional rendering of these sharp realities has now left her exposed, as interviewers and reviewers hint at something underhand, attempting to drag the story back to where they perceive its origins ought to be. There is, of course, an obvious transformation that occurs when a book is written as fiction. It distinguishes this writer from Frey, and from Margaret Seltzer and Misha Defonseca, whose memoirs about growing up in gangland Los Angeles and the Warsaw ghetto, respectively, were exposed as fraudulent this month. Offering a story in novel form alerts the reader that they would be wrong to assume events happened that way, because the writer has taken all the liberties of compression and conflation and invention that fiction permits.
Sean O'Beirne, of the "Readings" book group, thinks that The Spare Room is a continuance of the author's previous work: "If you've read Monkey Grip or The First Stone, or Joe Cinque's Consolation, you'll know some of the Helen in The Spare Room. She's good company, good in a book. She's clever and fierce and she laughs; she's anxious and busy; she does her jobs; she rides her bike, she cooks and cleans and writes; she slogs on. She makes feelings very fast and strong, and she's often shocked that what she wants is violence. She makes lots of mistakes, and that keeps her in pain; but it also keeps her where she can see -- where she's painfully interested in -- the mistakes of others. She'll tell you things that more cautious, nicer writers wouldn't say. She'll tell you that, a lot of the time, she's thinks her dear dying friend is an idiot."

Dean, of the "Happy Antipodean" weblog has a long look at The First Stone, "Helen Garner's 1995 look at a sexual harrassment case that took place following events at an elite Melbourne university college (Ormond)...The 'fundamentalist' label she uses is to be expected, if we agree (as one reviewer states) that women are still 'an oppressed people'. It is necessary to ask 'what is the alternative?' when blaming committed feminists for their sharp views...On the other hand, recent changes in fashion and the relentless 'democratisation' of culture demonstrate a greater ease, among young women, with responsibilities vis a vis their rights as equal citizens as well as sexual animals. In Garner's subtitle ('some questions about sex and power') lie avenues that recent adults could profitably explore.".


Susan Wyndham, of "The Sydney Morning Herald", interviewed Garner and found her rather wary.

Helen Garner can sniff a storm coming. She has been drenched by earlier storms that broke over some of her books and so she is wary, keeping journalists at a distance. No interviews at her home: she doesn't want us describing her fridge magnets or, no doubt, the spare room that features in her novel The Spare Room.
And even when she is talking about the writing process you can practically see the furrowed brow, not that I blame her for that.
"I don't know where people think writing comes from. People talk as if a story is something lying on the ground that you pick up and dust off and put in a book. But material isn't a story, it's a mess, a cloudy series of events or experiences. On every page there's a thousand tiny decisions about how you're going to tell it. And once you've written something, you can't even remember which bits 'really happened' and which bits you made up."
On the "Readings" website, Michael Williams talks to the author and gathers some insight into her view of character.
It is somehow unsurprising that Helen Garner describes herself as "in favour of very tough eulogies." As a writer she's always been one for uncomfortable truths and avoiding the easy platitudes. "If you've got the nerve to describe the dark side of a person, the maddening side, then people seem to find this enormously relieving. If I go to a funeral and the person is described purely in glowing terms, I come away feeling very sad and cheated, feeling the person hasn't been honoured properly. Everybody's selfish and thoughtless and unkind. To pretend that somebody wasn't is just awful." This world-view seems typical of Garner's writing, as does the ability to confront the "dark side" and still ultimately write about love and friendship (albeit, as she puts it, "when the chips are down"). Through directness and candour, through tough love, she pays tribute to the friends and strangers whose stories she tells.
Christopher Bantick, of "the Courier-Mail", met up with Garner in Carlton, which led him to thinking about her first novel, Monkey Grip, and about her subsequent work.
What has distinguished Garner's work -- whether it be fiction, non-fiction or journalism -- is her acute powers of observation. Garner sees much as a soothsayer does into hearts and minds, the secrets of the past and the insecurities of the present moment. More than this, she is unremitting in peeling back the protective counterpane of image and manner. Her characters in fiction, her subjects in non-fiction and figures in journalism are all pared back to their essentials. In this she does not overlook herself. Her new and clean-lined book, The Spare Room, is likely to prompt discussion as much about its form as well as content. Can it be a novel where the central character, Helen, is Garner herself? And what about the pellucid style where we read with almost forensic detachment the recounting of a relationship over a three-week period? Is this fiction or non-fiction, autobiography masquerading as fiction or at least a hybrid where elements of fiction diffuse with an almost reportage of reality?

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 9, 2008 11:54 AM.

2008 ABC Fiction Award Winner was the previous entry in this blog.

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