HELEN GARNER Everywhere I Look. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
The Helen Garner of Everywhere I Look is as contradictory as she’s ever been in this collection brimming with highlights.
At the opening event of the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival, Helen Garner read from her then newly released book about the trial of Robert Farquharson, This House of Grief, before speaking with journalist Ramona Koval about the seven-year process of writing the book – the emotion and the tension of the courtroom; her fascination with the legal process. ‘I reckon I could get a book out of anything that was happening at a court,’ she told Koval, without even the slightest hint of swagger in her voice, ‘even the most minor traffic infringement.’
In her latest collection of essays, reviews and diary fragments, Garner not only proves the truth of this statement, but demonstrates that it’s not confined to the courtroom. She really does find inspiration in everything. She’s surrounded by it; it’s everywhere she looks.
The Helen Garner I met in the pages of Everywhere I Look wasn’t the person I was expecting. In the very first essay, ‘Whisper and Hum’, she furtively teaches herself to play the ukulele (‘a cop-out for the lazy and talentless’) after an otherwise forgettable holiday in Vanuatu with ‘a kind and very musical man to whom I would not much longer be married’.
Garner writes about everything from walking her daughter’s dog to bad haircuts; from Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth Bennet ‘reasons like a lawyer, or rather like a jury’) to the movies and music of Russell Crowe (‘his name is a byword for gracelessness and self-importance’). It’s an eclectic collection that’s full of surprises.
The pieces that make up Everywhere I Look span around 20 years and are divided into six parts, each based around similar themes. While most have been published before, some are new, including three short series of sketches and observations taken from her diaries. Critic Felicity Plunkett quite rightfully compares some of Garner’s diary entries to ‘something approaching haiku’. But to me, some sound more like social media updates:
A teenager on the 57 tram offers his mate some advice about women.
‘Don’t give ‘em too much attention! They take advantage! Just ‘cause you root ‘em they think you’re gonna go out with ‘em!’
Or one of many observations about her grandchildren:
After the summer of the terrible bushfires, the kids at the crèche became deeply interested in death. They got into their heads the belief that if a dead body burned, it would go on burning forever.
In ‘My Dear Lift-Rat’, Garner writes about her friendship with Elizabeth Jolley, while in ‘Eight Views of Tim Winton’, she reveals she also counts Tim Winton as a friend, even accompanying him to church:
Usually, when the priest offers you the chalice and says ‘The blood of Christ’, you reply ‘Amen’. I still don’t know if I dreamt this, but when Tim took the chalice and heard the formal words, he answered, ‘Thanks, mate’.
It’s a collection brimming with highlights. In ‘Dreams of her Real Self’, Garner writes about the deaths of her parents and the way her mother’s life was overshadowed by her father’s. ‘Gall and Barefaced Daring’ examines the life and work of Barbara Baynton, written as an introduction for the Text Classics edition of Bush Studies. ‘My First Baby’ begins ‘This isn’t really a story. I’m just telling you what happened one summer when I was young’ and it’s an odd, touching tale of a summer spent working in a department store when Garner becomes obsessed with a doll ‘exactly like a real baby. You had to hold it properly.’
In the middle section of the book is a group of essays on crime, punishment and the law, and I find that it’s not so much the crimes I’m drawn towards, but the way Garner brings into the light the details that others wouldn’t have noticed. For instance, during her profile of Rosie Batty, Garner observes that ‘the architecture of Rosie Batty’s face may be monumental, but the air around her is so clear that one can ask her anything’.
‘On Darkness’ once again examines the writing process of This House of Grief. One of the most striking passages isn’t about the courtroom or the crime at all, but about the beauty and absurdity of the Supreme Court:
One day I heard what sounded like music, very faint and far away. I thought I was hallucinating, and kept walking. But every time I passed the entrance to a certain west-running hallway, the same thing would happen: fragile drifts of notes and slow arpeggios, as if a ghost in a curtain-muffled room were playing a piano. I was too embarrassed to ask if anyone else had heard it; was I starting to crack up? But one day when there was no one else around I went in search of it. I found that an intersection of two corridors had been roofed in glass or Perspex. Two benches had been placed against a wall, and from a tiny speaker, fixed high in a corner, came showering these delicious droplets of sound. It was a resting place that some nameless benefactor had created, for people who thought they couldn’t go on.
Occasionally, in some of the more recent pieces, we’re able to catch brief glimpses of the toll that writing This House of Grief must have taken on Garner. In ‘The Insults of Age’, published in the Monthly late last year, Garner is taken to hospital after becoming confused during a university lecture. Later in the same piece, after witnessing a teenage girl harassing an elderly woman on the street, Garner is possessed with an unbridled rage that comes crashing down like lightning:
Something in me went berserk. In two strides I was behind the schoolgirl. I reached up, seized her ponytail at the roots and gave it a sharp downward yank.
Vulnerable one moment, vicious the next, the Helen Garner of Everywhere I Look is as contradictory as she’s ever been. She’s not always graceful, or kind, or right, but she’s always unflinching, always honest – and always elusive. In her essay, ‘I’, published in Meanjin in 2002 (and sadly, not included in this book), Garner talks about writing in the first person and the persona she creates to make this possible:
But I don’t feel exposed – because in this mysterious way I’m trying to describe, the ‘I’ in the story is never completely me.
The ‘I’ of Everywhere I Look is fleeting, but that’s one of the things that intrigues me most about Garner’s writing; the way she manages to reveal so much, but still keep herself hidden.
Brilliantly written and observed, there’s no doubting this is the work of one of our finest writers.
Helen Garner Everywhere I Look Text 2016 PB 272pp $29.99
Michelle McLaren blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).
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