CON­SCI­EN­TIOUS OB­SERVER

Deal­ing with ev­ery­thing from the insults of age to child mur­der, He­len Garner’s lat­est es­say col­lec­tion is mas­ter­ful, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

It’s years now since it dawned on the world that He­len Garner, who be­came fa­mous for writ­ing Mon­key Grip, a slap-it-all-down novel of love and pain and junkiedom, and con­sol­i­dated her rep­u­ta­tion with a mas­terly novella such as The Chil­dren’s Bach, is ac­tu­ally a daz­zling writer of non­fic­tion.

Back in 1995, the fires raged, il­lu­mi­nat­ingly and non-il­lu­mi­nat­ingly, about the con­tro­ver­sies Garner drama­tised in The First Stone, the story of the Or­mond Col­lege sex­ual ha­rass­ment af­fair. In that book and its suc­ces­sors, Joe Cinque’s Con­so­la­tion ( an Ital­ian boy dead, his mamma’s grief and rage, an In­dian girl­friend and the shadow she casts) and This House of Grief (the story of a man on trial for the mur­der of his young sons), Garner has per­fected a kind of de­tailed point-of-view writ­ing. It is a first-per­son voice that sees a thou­sand things and is at the same time held up to a form of scru­tiny, deeply fic­tional in its artistry, that ques­tions the re­li­a­bil­ity of the nar­ra­tion and high­lights the doubts of this slen­der couldn’t-think-its-way­out-of-a-bag per­sona that trav­els un­der the name of He­len Garner.

What was it Iago said in his ec­stasy of nega­tion? “I am not what I am.” The rea­son why Garner is so good at cap­tur­ing the drama and com­plex­ity of the dark, shad­owed things, the hard cases that make us doubt the good­ness of the law, at least for a time, is she shows us what she does not know or is too blind to see: she shows us the poverty of the self in the face of im­per­cip­i­ence caused by sen­ti­ment or anger, prej­u­dice, ig­no­rance or dumb in­ca­pac­ity.

In the area of the ac­tual, art doesn’t come much higher. (Garner re­cently won the $200,000 Wind­ham-Camp­bell prize, one of the world’s most lu­cra­tive lit­er­ary hon­ours, for her non­fic­tion work span­ning four decades.)

It was Keats who said he wanted to get be­yond any ir­ri­ta­ble reach­ing af­ter fact and rea­son and soared as a con­se­quence like a comet. Well, as the crime books go, so go th­ese es­says. When you and I and Garner are long dead, they will read this woman to find out what life was like in Aus­tralia in the mid-20th and early 21st cen­turies. Do you want to know what an older woman, sub­ject to grumpi­ness and van­ity, is like in the face of the ir­ri­ta­tion en­gen­dered by a sleek, up-him­self young drinks waiter? With tilted head and toothy smile the waiter said, “How’s your day been, ladies?’’ “Not bad, thanks,’’ I said. “We’re look­ing for­ward to a drink.” He leaned his head and shoul­ders right into our per­sonal space. “And how was your shop­ping?” Ev­ery­where I Look By He­len Garner Text Pub­lish­ing, 229pp, $29.99 That was when I lost it. “Lis­ten,” I said with a slow, sav­age calm. “We don’t want you to ask th­ese ques­tions. We want you to be cool and silent, like a real cock­tail waiter.” The in­sult rolled off my tongue as smooth as poi­son. The waiter’s smile with­ered. Then he made a sur­pris­ing move. He put out his hand to me and said, “My name’s Hugh.” I shook his hand. “I’m He­len. This is Anne. Now, in the short­est pos­si­ble time, will you please get two very dry mar­ti­nis onto this ta­ble?”

Af­ter such self-knowl­edge what for­give­ness? Yet some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent emerges af­ter a drink. The waiter comes back. He met my eye. Nei­ther of us smiled, let alone apol­o­gised. But be­tween us flick­ered some­thing be­nign. His ap­par­ent lack of re­sent­ment moved me to leave him a rather large tip.

How does a story like this work? It cer­tainly does not re­pu­di­ate the tough­ness of its own con­clu­sion, which is, God help us, al­most Yeat­sian in the rhetoric of its cold anger. And let no one, ever again, un­der any cir­cum­stances, put to me or any other woman the mo­ronic ques­tion, “And how was your shop­ping?”

And yet how that anger com­pli­cates it. It’s not hard to see how any­one, per­haps es­pe­cially a young woman, might find her blood boil­ing at the head­long self-rev­e­la­tions of Garner, grumpy old woman, but the art is some­thing else again, a con­di­tion of com­plete sim­plic­ity cost­ing not less than ev­ery­thing.

If you don’t want to weep in pub­lic, avoid read­ing the es­say Dreams of Her Real Self on a tram. It’s about the au­thor’s mother, long for­saken, and it is a mas­ter­piece.

IT IS, AT THE END OF THE DAY, A DEEPLY CHRIS­TIAN VI­SION THAT UN­DER­PINS THIS BOOK

I asked my mother, “Would you go to my

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