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I 'm ashamed to admit that I "discovered" Helen Garner only recently, nor can I say how it came about, but on the strength of one story I borrowed her collected fictions from my local public library, devoured all of them in a night and then had to own them. She is a marvelously acute and fearless writer with a unique, highly selective voice and a muscular lyricism that somehow evokes artists like Grace Paley and Flannery O"Connor without resembling either of them in any concrete way. Maybe it's her self-effacing sense of humor. I don't know. I'm not a critic or even a reviewer. But she's the kind of writer who shows you presumably familiar things in ways you've never seen them before, the sort of person you want to spend at least one evening of your life with, splitting that bottle of something you were saving for a special occasion. Just try her. And while you're at it, see if you can get a copy of Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, translated by Donald Rayfield. Shalamov makes Solzhenitsyn sound like Mary Poppins.
Reviewed in the United States on December 17, 2017
4.5★ “At home I answered the phone. A young woman asked for my husband.
‘He’s not here,’ I said, ‘at the moment. This is his wife speaking.’ I told her my name.
‘Oh yes!’ said the young woman. ‘He told me he was involved with you.’
‘Involved!’ I said. ‘He’s MARRIED to me.’
‘Oh well,’she said with an airy laugh. ‘Married… involved…’”
Oh, Helen Garner! You share such cringe-worthy moments that I’d be embarrassed if I met these people outside the pages of your work. Some seem so raw and uncomfortable.
The characters here range from lovers breaking up and friends reuniting to children trying to make sense of grown-up conversations and intertwined bodies they weren’t meant to see.
‘Postcards From Surfers’ is a particularly poignant story about an adult family – parents, adult daughter and auntie – holidaying as usual at Surfers Paradise. The women are knitting as always, and their conversation is exactly like those I have with one of my oldest friends (also a knitter).
“My mother and Auntie Lorna, well advanced in complicated garments for my sister’s teenage children, conduct their monologues which cross, coincide and run parallel.
. . .
Their two voices run on, one high, one low. If I speak they pretend to listen, just as I feign attention to their endless, looping discourses: these are our courtesies: this is love. Everything is spoken, nothing is said.”
Garner is an acclaimed Australian author, candid about the broken marriages behind her and the grandchildren she adores and for whom she’s discovered a whole new layer of love. She writes fiction and non-fiction, both long and short, and recently won the 2017 Walkley award for journalism. There seems to be nothing she can’t do. I am an admiring fan.
Many of these seem as if they could be from her own life and experience, but I would hesitate to point to any particular one. She is such a keen observer of people and their relationships, that she may well have invented something from watching a couple in an airport. I’ll never know. Whether Elizabeth was a real friend or invented, it doesn’t matter. She’s real to me.
“In the café Elizabeth told me her husband was dying of a tumour.
‘I used to think there was justice,’ she said, ‘and fairness. That there was a contract, that things meant something. Now I know your foot can go straight through the floor.’”
What people face, how people cope, this is the stuff of Garner’s work. It doesn’t always take a book. She can reach you with a story.
I’m very grateful to NetGalley and Text Publishing for the preview copy from which I’ve quoted.
This is one of two books published to celebrate Helen Garner’s seventy-fifth birthday in 2017. This book is by far the smaller book of the two (the other book, ‘True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction’ is around 800 pages). This book, with its fourteen stories, contains just over 200 pages.
I’ve read this book twice. It takes me longer to read Ms Garner’s fiction: I need to work hard for my understanding of it. Not, I hasten to say, because of Ms Garner’s writing. No, it’s because most of these stories have many layers and in order to appreciate the whole story I need to identify the different parts.
There are no perfect characters, nor are there any stereotypes, in Ms Garner’s fiction. Each character has a past and a purpose. The future may be less certain, as in many stories the characters are anxiously navigating the present. We meet these characters, effectively described by Ms Garner, we journey alongside them for a while, witness an aspect or two of their lives, and then part company. There are no neat conclusions and no complicated backstories. And I think that is one of the reasons I find Ms Garner’s fiction harder work. Not because I need conclusions and backstories but because given an opportunity I will try to imagine them for myself. Ms Garner’s short story has finished on the page, but sometimes it is still taking place in my mind. Right now, I’m still in Surfers (‘Postcards from Surfers’) knitting, contributing my own monologue.
The author Helen Garner is a versatile wordsmith. She is a great short story writer. Stories: The Collected Short Fiction was released to coincide with Garner’s 75th birthday. It is a selection of short eccentric tales that had me embarrassed at times.
The characters in this book are super believable. Which was one thing this story had going for it. The characters are quite flawed. The narrative is intense and very interesting.
Her characters tended to be lonely or desperate people. They have anxiety and depression and crazy dreams. They are quite hilarious though so that was fun.
Not sure if I will read another one though.
Disclaimer: I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest Review.
It was only after suffering through many pages of interminable drivel about how it was impossible to serve green vegetables with fish, that I realised there was a major typo in the title. The "ST" should have been a "B".