Helen Garner is one of Australia’s best loved writers. Her first novel Monkey Grip was published in 1977 and since then she has published further novels, short stories, full length non-fiction works, screenplays, as well as numerous essays, articles and newspaper columns.
A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her Work (2017) by Bernadette Brennan is a detailed literary portrait of Helen Garner which examines her life and her writing chronologically. In researching the book, Brennan was granted access to Garner’s embargoed archive at the National Library of Australia which includes her writer’s books, letters, diaries and papers. Each chapter concentrates on one or two of Garner’s works and her research process as well as looking at the events in Garner’s life at that time. As Brennan describes it, ‘each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing. Some rooms have alcoves, others debouch into wider spaces; all are connected by passageways.‘
The book is divided into the two parts, the first dealing mainly with Garner’s fiction up to her 1992 novel Cosmo Cosmolino. All her fiction is deeply autobiographical, painfully so for some of her friends. The second part concentrates on Garner’s non-fiction writing, both her major works and her collections of essays, as well as the autobiographical novel, The Spare Room (2008). The first of her nonfiction works The First Stone, published in 1995, is perhaps her most contentious. This book centres on the handling of sexual harassment allegations against the Master of the prestigious Ormond College of the University of Melbourne which resulted in the Master being charged with but ultimately acquitted of sexual assault. The book polarized people at the time of publication (and still does) but stirred up an important and vigorous public debate about sex, feminism and power relations. Rather than a dispassionate and clinical examination, The First Stone is a personal and openly self-conscious attempt by Helen Garner’s to understand questions of heterosexual relations and power in relation to the case. Brennan gives a balanced assessment of The First Stone and the controversy surrounding it. She also examines Garner’s motivations in writing the book and reasons for the literary approach taken in presenting the Ormond case. Brennan’s consideration of the books and articles written about The First Stone firmly place the book in its contemporary context.
One of the criticisms of Garner regarding The First Stone was that in presenting her personal responses she had inserted herself into a story that was not truly hers; this criticism has also been made of two of her other non-fiction works, Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and This House of Grief (2014). But the ordinary reading public appreciates Garner’s approach in which she takes on the role of something of an everywoman examining her own assumptions and reactions to what are ultimately questions concerning the human condition. Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief both deal with murder investigations but they can in no way be considered part of the usual ‘true crime’ genre. Joe Cinque’s Consolation follows the events that brought a young woman, Anu Singh, to trial for the calculated murder of her boyfriend, Joe Cinque. This House of Grief traces the trials and legal appeal of Robert Farquharson, a man separated from his wife who drove his car into a dam on Fathers’ Day 2005 killing his three sons aged ten, seven and two. Both books are sharply observed and deeply thoughtful and are Garner’s attempt to understand both the legal process and human motivations. In her examination of these books, Brennan reveals the astounding extent of Garner’s research and the intense personal toll it took on her to write them, as well as the strains in her non-writing life.
Bernadette Brennan’s writing is plain and unobtrusive yet elegant, a perfect vehicle for the analysis of an other author’s works. I was left with a sense of awe not just of the breadth and volume of Garner’s background reading for even her novels but also of that done by Bernadette Brennan to ensure a balanced, erudite and comprehensive examination of Helen Garner’s body of work. Bernadette Brennan is an academic specializing in contemporary Australian writing and literature and a former lecturer in English.
A more comprehensive review can be found here.