Reviewed in the United States on June 4, 2018
“ One friend of mine, a keen and discriminating reader of fiction, confessed to me, ‘I even forget the books I’ve loved the most. And it’s not through lack of concentration: I’m completely absorbed by the book as I read it—but afterwards it’s like another world that I lived in for a while, and now I’ve left it behind. I remember how I felt, but not the book itself.’”
You too? That’s certainly true of me and my memory, although there will always be characters and scenes and plot twists that stick. I remember so many little scenes from Garner's work.
This is an impossible book to review, other than to say it’s a wonderful collection of short works by one of my favourite authors. It was compiled in honour of her 75th birthday (2017) and includes three of her previously published books plus the long essay “Why She Broke”, which was published in The Monthly magazine. It’s about a migrant mother who drove her children into a lake where some drowned.
I had previously read the essay and her original story collection, also called True Stories: Selected Non Fiction, some time ago. More recently I read and reviewed "Everywhere I Look"..
In "The Feel Of Steel", the "steel" refers to when she took up fencing. She has done a lot of unusual things. These are all made up of short non-fiction pieces, about everything from crime to babies to drugs to being sacked as a teacher for teaching sex in her class to kids who needed to know about it.
She goes nowhere without her notebook, and she stops in the middle of whatever she's doing to write things down. She began being interested in what is now called the True Crime genre, but for her it was sparked by following a controversial court case and writing a book This House of Grief (about a father who drove his children into a dam where they drowned). She sits in court day after day, studying all the players and getting a better insight into the story than any juror could possibly have.
She is an interesting mix of private and persistent. She’s a skilled interviewer. but she had to learn.
“As an interviewer you have to discipline your narcissism. You have to train yourself to shut up about what you did and saw and felt. You learn by practice to listen properly and genuinely, to follow with respect the wandering path of the other’s thoughts. After a while this stops being an effort. You notice that your concentration span is getting longer—longer than you ever thought it could become. Fewer and fewer things bore you. Curiosity is a muscle. Patience is a muscle. What begins as a necessary exercise gradually becomes natural.”
I like that. We do talk about exercising patience, don’t we? I never considered doing the same for curiosity, although being naturally curious, I’m interested in most people.
I read once where a man told his son to listen to everyone, because truly boring people are one in a million, and the fact they are one in a million is a reason to make them interesting. I’m not sure if Garner has ever though that, but she does seem to strike up conversations easily with anyone.
She’s an outsider who writes from the inside. In some stories about her growing up, (she was the eldest of 6), she is sometimes the ringleader around whom the action revolves and yet often felt like the odd one out, the one who didn’t fit.
And the same at university and in share houses with other (mostly) young people. Many were doing drugs (some soft, some hard), and trying to manage a household with rosters and rules. Again, she sometimes felt like the one who didn’t fit, but she writes from the heart of the inner circle and doesn’t miss a trick.
She is opinionated (and why not), and critical of poor punctuation, among other things. Just one of her pet peeves. But she is just as hard on herself, often telling anecdotes where she comes off second best.
“. . . I was reminded that I ought to keep a lid on my passion for punctuation when I bragged to my friend Tim Winton that I had just written ‘a two-hundred-word paragraph consisting of a single syntactically perfect sentence’. He scorched me with a surfer’s stare and said, ‘I couldn’t care less about that sort of s**t.’”
She has chronicled so much of life in Australia for the last 50 years, that when I read her stories and essays, I feel as if I’m reading my own history. Not that I spent time following cases in a maternity ward or learning the ins and outs of the morgue. No. But the families she meets could be people I knew. Their circumstances are recognisable, so I know when she’s writing about something completely outside my ken, I can trust her.
This was a particularly touching excerpt from an interview during her time in the morgue.
“‘With the SIDS babies we take extra time. We wash and powder them. And during post-mortems we’re really careful not to damage them. You feel they’ve been through enough. We rebuild and reconstruct them really carefully. Funny—when you’re holding a dead baby in your arms, you know it’s dead, but you still have the instinct to support the head, and not to let it drop back.’
. . .
‘You have to realise,’ says Jodie, ‘that what we deal with here isn’t really death. We see what’s left behind after death has happened—after death has been and gone.’”
See what I mean? She’s very much the stranger, the outsider, but people let her completely into their confidence.
“People will always tell you more than you need to know—and more than they want you to know.”
She describes an episode in the maternity ward (where she watches labour and births!):
“A beeper goes off. Five doctors dive for their belts, in curved, two-handed plunging gestures, as graceful as if they were dancing. Midwives are the sort of people you’d be glad to see come striding through the door in an emergency. Doctors too, of course—but while doctors can seem driven and head-tripping, midwives have the relaxed physical confidence of sportswomen. With their slow, wide-swinging gait, they radiate capable calm. Their professional mode is unflappability.”
After a long labour, dainty dark Mala from Madras finally has her baby. Her husband has been tender and solicitous, but once the baby is born, he begins to behave a little oddly. He tries to indicate something to the doctor, not really knowing what to say.
“He urges her to note that the baby’s skin is much lighter in colour than his or Mala’s. Nik [the registrar] stands stock still at the foot of the bed. Linda [the doctor] steps forward to the cot and leans over it. A beat. ‘His skin,’ she says clearly and carefully, ‘will darken in four to six months. As soon as the sun hits him—boom. All babies are born with light skin.’ She hovers over the baby. She looks up at Mala’s husband. Something more needs to be said. Linda swallows and takes the plunge. ‘He bears a very strong resemblance to you,’ she says. ‘Oh, very strong. Doesn’t he. Yes—the father’s the winner, with this one.’”
And you’ll be the winner if you enjoy good writing about life in general, life in particular, and the thoughts and musings of a wonderful, witty, warm, sarcastic, opinionated, fun-loving writer.
About a time she and a friend were walking along, laughing almost hysterically at a number of things, Helen writes:
“As we lurch along, sobbing with laughter, holding each other up, she gasps, ‘This reminds me of something Bill Garner said to me about you, right after you split up. He said, “If all there was to life was walking along the street, Helen’s the person I’d like to do it with.””
Same here. And I'd like her to bring her notebook.
I’m such a fan. Thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for the preview copy from which I’ve quoted. And thanks to Helen Garner for making such good use of her diaries and notes.