Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Helen Garner, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting

‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner


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.

23 thoughts on “‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner”

  1. Your comment makes me feel so much better, Lisa. I had expected to love this book, but struggled to like it. Its partly the grunge, partly the irresponsibility of the characters (clearly a book BEFORE the AIDS era) that turned me off. The characters arent detestible or anything, but they are annoying and their actions are so self-destructive to be frustrating. I didnt throw the book across the room, but I was tempted!


  2. I think this is the issue that I had with it – it’s the experiences of a generation, but it’s not MY generation, and I think that made it hard for me to empathise with the group.


  3. Yes, it’s difficult to empathise with anyone in this novel. Generally I try not to let that influence whether I like a book or not, but in this case I just found Nora too annoying and stupid and pathetic and needy, and I just wished she’d dump Javo and get on with her life! But I appreciate this is an important book in the Australian canon and when it came out I believe it was the first contemporary Melbourne novel to show gritty urban realism, so it is definitely of its time.


  4. I would like to read more Helen Garner after being really impressed with ‘The Spare Room’, this book did loose me when I read the word junkie. I think drug culture can be added to boats and horses as something that switches me off a book completely.
    There is a pair of her novella’s published together that I want to read but the name of it escapes me completely.


  5. I know. What can I say? Sadly I wasnt at the meeting to defend it (ironically I was in Dublin at the time), but if I was there my score would have bumped the average up quite a bit!


  6. Yes, I’m beginning to think I’m not much of a fan of junkie novels either… but I do like ones about horses and boats! 🙂
    You’re probably thinking of “Honour & Other People’ Children”
    I’m actually keen to read her second novel, The Children’s Bach, which recently won Meanjin’s Tournament of Books


  7. Sometimes the books nobody really like spark the most interesting discussions though…
    One member of my old book group suggested a title one month, then came back the next saying ‘I’m really sorry – let’s talk about something else’ – and we talked about the hideous book in question all evening (and no, it wasn’t this…)


  8. I think it is definitely a product of its time, Jackie. And part of the book’s problem is its monotony. But in our discussion we figured that was deliberate; it mirrors the monotony of the character’s lives.


  9. I’ve heard her name a lot in the past, most in connection with The Spare Room, but I’ve always stayed away. I don’t like going into a book with the “love it or hate” coin toss mentality. I don’t have that much time.
    And Ditto Kate’s previous comment.


  10. There was a nostalgic article about Grip in the Age a few weeks ago, written by a nurse who read the book when it was published — “I was the fresh-faced young nurse, a little naive, eager to see the good in others. I would help the Javos of this world …” — and then she read it again recently — “It still held all the same smells and I felt giddy all over again with their house sharing, bed swapping, speeding and frenetic lives, but it was Javo. Javo wasn’t the same.”


  11. Thanks, Pykk, I saw that article, ironically after having come home from book group, and tweeted it. I think it helps explain why the book has become a classic.


  12. This a very late contribution to this discussion as I only picked up the book in this most recent school holidays…
    Whilst the setting and the time frame and subject matter are not my generation or connect in any way to my own experiences, (I joyously get to say on this occasion I am too young 🙂 ) what I did connect with through the prose and the loose structure of diary style entries was the emotional quality of a destructive and addictive relationship… this I think makes it universal – and earns the title of an example of classic urban Australian Literature
    Our 20’s and 30’s or friends etc are littered with relationships that burn too brightly and cannot be endured…the appeal of this kind of book is that we can observe closely the horror from the safety of a middle-class lives and lounge rooms…
    To also be a parent and have a village raise your child/ren is not something too many of us have access to currently and I liked seeing the mother figure get to go off and get wild and carefree for small confined moments…
    The writing is eloquent, incisive, languid, slipshod and repetitive and monotonous just like real life –
    I have thrown books across the room in a dramatic gesture to show I am not giving the story any more of my time – but this was not one of them
    the narrative voice was authentic and problematic but it has lingered in my thoughts…


  13. I guess it’s obvious that our enjoyment or appreciation of a book (or film which is my other area of interest) depends on so many factors other than the quality of the book, such as age we are when we read the book, our personality and outlook on life, our life experiences up to that point, the time that’s elapsed since the book was written etc. I’m always amazed when people hate things I love and love things I hate, but of course they feel the same. Anyway, I read this book in the late 70s when I was living in a group house in inner Sydney, and this book spoke to me, capturing the spirit of the times. Perhaps, reading it again it would seem dated, but I have very fond memories of it.


    1. That’s the great thing about reading: it’s such a subjective experience that no two people can ever have the same reaction to the same book.


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