Non-fiction – paperback; Text; 240 pages; 2016.
I was so excited about the impending publication of Helen Garner’s latest essay collection that I thought, “damn the postage costs”, and ordered it all the way from Australia.
Garner is one of Australia’s finest writers (you can find many of her books reviewed here). Most Brits will know her from her sharply caustic 2008 novel The Spare Room in which a woman, caring for a friend dying of bowel cancer, finds herself caught between kindness and honesty: how should she deal with the fact that her friend is relying on quackery for a cure that will never happen?
But in her native Australia, Garner is widely respected (and occasionally vilified) for her journalism, a journalism that she practises with the same dilemma as the narrator in The Spare Room: when to be kind, and when to be blatantly honest? Her reportage style is deeply personal for she often inserts herself into the story, a technique that allows her to capture heartfelt reactions without the so-called veneer of “objectivity”.
In her last non-fiction book (she has five to her name, primarily about true crime cases), This House of Grief looked at a criminal case involving the deaths of three young boys at the hands of their father. Published in Australia last year and the UK earlier this year, it was critically acclaimed and won a literary prize, but there were some who would not read it because it did not condemn the man as a “monster”.
In her latest collection of essays, Everywhere I Look, which has just been published in the UK, Garner answers this criticism robustly in an essay called “On Darkness”:
“If he had been a monster, I wouldn’t have been interested in writing about him. The sorts of crimes that interest me are not the ones committed by psychopaths. I’m interested in apparently ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.”
This is typical of Garner’s style. She’s not interested in dividing the world into black and white; she’s most happy – and effective – when she’s delving in to the margins, fleshing out the grey that no one else ever seems to report on. She appreciates the moral complexities of the world, an attitude that not only makes her work especially perceptive but incredibly powerful too.
And that’s a good word to describe the 33 short essays collected here: powerful. Garner turns her sharp, perceptive and sometimes painfully honest eye to a wide range of issues including a court case involving a 17-year-old charged with infanticide (“Punishing Karen”) and criminal proceedings against a man accused of pushing a refugee into Melbourne’s Yarra River, where he drowned (“The Man in the Dock”).
The power of the personal
But she’s no less powerful when writing about herself. For instance, her friendship with fellow Australian writer Tim Winton (“Eight Views of Tim Winton”) is depicted with wit and warmth – “It’s an unlikely friendship-I’m almost as old as his mother” – and she’s self-deprecating when she writes about her love of playing the ukulele (“Whisper and Hum”), an instrument she once regarded as a “cop-out for the lazy and talentless”.
Her personal diary extracts (“While Not Writing a Book”, “Funk Paradise” and “Before Whatever Else Happens”) are particular highlights, for not only do they give a glimpse of Garner’s life as a daughter, mother and grandmother, they are all written with the elegance and undiminished wonder of a true writer who revels in the extraordinariness of the every day. Some of them are also very funny.
“At two in the morning, Ted [her four-year-old grandson], sleeping in the spare room, has a bad dream and creeps into my bed. He flings himself about diagonally for the rest of the night, cramming me into a tiny corner. God damn it, I think at 5am, this is worse than being married.”
But it is her heartbreaking and oh-so candid essay about her late mother (“Dreams of Her Real Self”) that is the standout of this exceptional collection. In it Garner writes that her mother was timid and unsure of herself, that she always lived in the shadow of her larger-than-life husband and did not know how to express emotion. Their relationship was always slightly at arm’s length and they never really got to know each other.
“When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself, to muffle and conceal this joy.”