To calculate the overall star rating and percentage breakdown by star, we don’t use a simple average. Instead, our system considers things like how recent a review is and if the reviewer bought the item on Amazon. It also analyzes reviews to verify trustworthiness.
How Helen Garner crafted such an avant-garde, impressionistic, zeitgest-y novel set in Melbourne in the mid 70s is a feat to behold. The reason it seems such a marvel, so unsurpassed, and preceded by nothing worthy of comparison, is because prior to the publication of this book there was very little memorable Australian literature, and our country depicted without embellishment, in its most uncompromising and realistic tone, was scarcely represented. Before Monkey Grip, books about Australia were written with a distinctly English tone, and the colloquialisms were never intoned. They come springing to life in this sensational book and it feels as though Garner has miraculously written a work of elegant prose, but inserted such laconic, crude Australian "Ocker" language into it that it feels almost like a miracle, an anomaly.
Monkey Grip vaguely resembles a European art book, with little in the way of plot, but reverberating with so much evocative imagery and stream-of-consciousness, as well as the political transgressions and offbeat sexuality of Burroughs and other American beat writers. The imagery is beautiful and vividly described, reminiscent of an E.M. Forster novel if it took place in inner-city Australia in the 70s. Perhaps a more accurate comparison would be Jack Kerouac, who captured a generation in America with his book On The Road, in the same way Garner captured a generation in Australia: thirty-somethings living in inner-city Melbourne, with its share-houses, lively art scene, and burgeoning feminist ideals about open relationships, new ways of loving, and living. Both books have become cultural touchstones and a time-capsuel for their respective countries.
Those seeking a book with a formulaic plot, with a clear beginning, middle and end will be disappointed. A common, but tiresome and baseless complaint levelled at this book is that it is "thin on plot". I wonder why people become so uncomfortable when they read a book that doesn't appease their desire for conventional narrative. People looking for an obvious beginning/middle/end should scope out a romance paperback and leave the subversive Helen Garner, with her challenging and gritty depiction of love in the mid 70s alone. Still, I'm not above recommending this to anybody with a healthy curiosity, even if it's not their style. The wording, dialogue and language are rewarding, and I think even the detractors can recognise that, and Garner brings her characters to life in very colourful ways. Nora, in her indecisiveness, and her neurotic desperation for Javo (which brilliantly parallels his neurotic addiction for a heroin hit), will be recognisable to a lot of readers. At one point, Nora says...
"Smack habit! Love habit! What's the difference? They can both kill you."
Monkey Grip follows single mother Nora and her loving obsession with Javo, the heroin junkie. They and their friends drift through communal houses, mostly surviving on the dole and having sex whenever, and with whom ever, they please. This book, published in 1977, was very of its time – I imagine it caused a big stir, revealing as it did the reality of the life of junkies and scandalising people with its depiction of strong feminist views forbidding possessive personal relationships at a time when feminism had barely got into its stride.
Nora wanders in and out of bed with Javo, looks after her daughter Gracie, swims in the Fitzroy pool and rides her bike all over inner Melbourne. But no matter how badly Javo behaves, stealing money from flatmates to fund his addiction, disappearing for months at a time, something always draws them back together, ‘and the harder they pull away from each other, the tighter the monkey grip’.
The story is almost plotless, as the characters wander from one house, one party, one sexual encounter, to the next. One of the criticisms levelled at it at the time was that Garner had simply published her diaries. Later she admitted that much of the story had come from her diaries, which makes this book an incredible expose of her psyche at that time, but it doesn’t read like a diary, its better than that. The minutae of everyday life that Garner portrays is really mesmerising and one of the great strengths of her writing, for me at least. I love her casual way with dialogue and how resolutely Australian everyone sounds. They go out the back to the dunny, they talk about people ‘giving them the s***’, and tell people to ‘get stuffed’.
No wonder Australians identified with such local literature, which until then was almost non-existent.
I suppose what I admire most about Garner’s skill is her ability to deliver a line of dialogue with some internal discourse attached to it, that perfectly conveys how the character is feeling in so few words. I just love the minimalism of it. One of the best lines for me is when Nora decides to move out from the house she shares with her friend Rita, and the man she reluctantly thinks of as her current squeeze, asks whether she feels guilty about leaving Rita and her daughter behind.
‘If you can do it and not feel guilty about it, that’s really good. I’ve never done it, that’s all,’ he says.
‘Done what?’ Nora asks.
‘Walked out on someone who needed me.’
And then Garner, sums up just how this affects Nora in just 12 perfect words, and no more:
A great rush of distress and its protective accompaniment, anger, filled me.
It may not seem like the most amazing line of prose, but to me its just perfect. I could read her all day.
The concept of rebelling against monogamy is also interesting – when one of the women says the one thing you can’t do is take another woman’s man, they all glare at her as if she’s just suggested dropping the atomic bomb, and Nora wonders if they think that, then what have they ‘all been agonising about all this time?’ The conversation perfectly captures the problem with open relationships – its a good idea, but in reality, jealousy, possessiveness and love intrude and cause these women to be hurt, multiple times over, as they try to hide their pain from their men and each other.
But eventually Nora and Javo’s dance around each other has to come to a head, and there’s a climax of sorts, but this isn’t the book to read if you need a classical plot and deft structure. Just read it to revel in the words, and the images, and the precise, evocative dialogue.
Were you thinking of visiting Melbourne, or a fan of an earlier--more punk--era, or just looking for a distant but familiar land, and of love? Or maybe you're looking for lovely turns of phrase, kind word phrases. Well, here's a book to hold you, or your hands and wants, to pass those moments.
Maybe you have to be "of a certain age" and have lived through a certain time, with all its complexities, to appreciate this book. There was a lot of high and low life in the counter-culture, a lot of confusion, but there were some wonderful experiences to be had as well. I've read this book completely through about six times. I think of it as an old friend with which I will never part. I think her prose is breathtaking in its immediacy; it breathes life. Some of her descriptions of what she sees/hears/observes are so amazingly wonderful that I stop every time I read them to savor them a while before moving on. She is poetic in the true sense: not trying for an effect, but responding with her whole heart to a moment in such a way that your heart also is touched.
As an Australian living overseas one of the first things that I found attractive about this book was the manner in which Garner paints the suburban Australian landscape and lifestyle. The party scenes made me laugh out loud. I also enjoyed the realistic descriptions of shared houshold life. The troubled relationship which forms the central theme of the book rung true to me with its unresolved tensions, misunderstandings and developments. I very much enjoyed the rhythm and style of the dialogue and descriptions. In fact, I have marked many lines and quotes from my favorite parts so that I can find them to re-read again and again. I can see why other reviewers may have disliked this book for their own reasons. I vote it, however, as one of my favorite books of all time. This is my first review in Amazon, and I just felt drawn to writing something about this book in the hope that maybe some other readers around the world may find as much enjoyment in it as I did!
This is a novel for gaining insight into life on a number of levels- It portrays inner city life in Australia as it was in the 1970's in shared households- It shows what happens to addicted people and how their addictions can direct them to obviously self-destructive behaviour but their awareness of where they headed is not necessarily constructive. That is, those addicted to love, to drugs or to everything really are consumed by their addiction. Beautiful, clear writing which rewards a reader with new ideas at every successive reading. One of the most meaningful books this reviewer has embraced. James Pope