Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 246 pages; 2009.
I seem to have accidentally developed a track record in choosing books for my book group that are universally disliked. Last year I chose Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home, which scored 5.5 out of 10, and this year’s choice, Helen Garner‘s debut novel, Monkey Grip, achieved the far worse score of 4 out of 10.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: Garner has a reputation in Australia for polarising readers, more notably for her journalistic work — The First Stone, an account of a 1992 sexual harassment scandal at the University of Melbourne, generated an avalanche of controversy. And her fiction also seems to attract equal amounts of bile and love. But of the books I have read — including Garner’s most recent novel The Spare Room and her true crime book Joe Cinque’s Consolation — I have thoroughly enjoyed.
I can’t say the same for Monkey Grip, which did not live up to my expectations.
Bohemians living in 1970s Melbourne
The story, which is set in Melbourne in the mid-1970s, is about a group of men, women and children living a Bohemian lifestyle in a series of share houses. It is narrated by Nora, a 30-something divorced woman with a school-aged daughter, who develops a sexual relationship with a junkie called Javo.
The diary-style narrative charts this on-off affair, which gradually morphs into an inter-dependent relationship that neither party is willing to break. Nora, who seems intent on sleeping with anyone simply to stave off the loneliness, turns a blind eye to Javo’s continued dependence on drugs — “Smack habit, love habit, what’s the difference?” — and his dishonest tendencies.
It is, at times, a fascinating, albeit frustrating, portrait of two people caught up in a destructive relationship. But for the most part I found it a somewhat tedious read, not helped by the all-too frequent descriptions of Nora’s dreams and her sexual activities.
A journey of self-discovery
There’s no real plot; the story is essentially one person’s journey of self-discovery.
The book’s strengths lie in Garner’s evocative prose — her descriptions of Melbourne baking in the summer sun are particularly eloquent — and the snapshot she provides of a specific time, place and group of people living an alternative lifestyle.
Nora’s voice, while slightly self-obsessed and vain, is refreshing in its frankness and its honesty. No surprise then, that Garner later claimed she adapted it directly from her personal diaries.
Monkey Grip, now regarded as an Australian classic, won the National Book Council Award in 1978 and was turned into a film in 1982 starring Noni Hazlehurst, Colin Friels and the author’s daughter, Alice Garner.