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Helen Garner Biography

Nationality: Australian. Born: Helen Ford in Geelong, Victoria, 1942. Education: Manifold Heights State School; Ocean Grove State School; The Hermitage, Geelong; Melbourne University, 1961-65, B.A. (honors) 1965. Career: Writer-in-residence, Griffith University, Nathan, Queensland, 1983, and University of Western Australia, Nedlands, 1984. Melbourne theater critic, National Times, Sydney, 1982-83. Since 1981 feature writer, Age, Melbourne. Since 1985 member of the Australia Council Literature Board. Awards: Australia Council fellowship, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1983; National Book Council award, 1978; New South Wales Premier's award, 1986.



Monkey Grip. Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1977; London, Penguin, 1978; New York, Seaview, 1981.

Moving Out (novelization of screenplay), with Jennifer Giles. Melbourne, Nelson, 1983.

The Children's Bach. Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1984.

Cosmo Cosmolino. Ringwood, Victoria, McPhee Gribble, 1992;London, Bloomsbury, 1993.

Short Stories

Honour, and Other People's Children: Two Stories. Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1980; New York, Seaview, 1982.

Postcards from Surfers. Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1985; NewYork, Penguin, 1986; London, Bloomsbury, 1989.

My Hard Heart: Selected Fiction. Ringwood, Victoria, Viking, 1998.


The Stranger in the House, adaptation of a play by RaymondDemarcy (produced Melbourne, 1982; London, 1986).


La Mama: The Story of a Theatre. Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1988.

The First Stone: Some Questions About Sex and Power. Sydney, PanMacmillan Australia, 1995; New York, Free Press, 1997.

True Stories: Selected Non-Fiction. Melbourne, Australia, Text Publishing, 1996.


Critical Study:

"On War and Needlework: The Fiction of Helen Garner" by Peter Craven, in Meanjin (Melbourne), no. 2, 1985; Helen Garner by Kerryn Goldsworthy. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.

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Helen Garner's novels deal with the fractured relationships of "alternative" living in Melbourne. Against a background of communes and shared houses, the drug scene, rock bands, cooperative movies, suburb, and beach, her characters try to form relationships and cope with their inevitable failure. Her fiction explores the point at which freedom stops and irresponsibility begins. It is a world in which women with love to spare try to deal with men who have "the attention span of a stick insect" who monopolize them one minute and ignore them the next. There is a sympathetic, fatalistic cast to her writing. Most of her characters could be summed up by the line: "Their mother was dead and they were making a mess of things." Monkey Grip is Nora's account of her obsessive love for Javo, a junkie. They belong to a subculture where drugs define the real and the tolerable, where there is no tomorrow only today, and therefore where commitments to another person are infinitely redefinable. "I'm not all that worried about futures. I don't want to love anyone forever." Nora's love, her habit of "giving it all away," is as addictive as Javo's heroin habit, and makes her as vulnerable. She supports and is supported by other women, sometimes finding herself consoling or being consoled by a sexual rival. The pain and the jealousy are intense but in the curiously reticent unreticence of this culture, protest about exploitation is limited to declarations as inadequate as, "That makes me feel bad." By the end of the novel Nora has achieved some degree of detachment from Javo, but there is no guarantee that the cycle will not be repeated with another exploitingly helpless male.

Honour, and Other People's Children is a pair of novellas which show characters similar to those in Monkey Grip at a later stage in their lives. Each involves separation. In "Honour" a woman who has been separated for five years from her husband is shocked by his asking for a divorce in order to remarry. Instead of the commune life he now wants "a real place to live, with a back yard where I can plant vegies, and a couple of walls to paint, and a dog—not a bloody room in a sort of railway station." Despite their five-year separation Elizabeth still feels a residual bonding which is now threatened. Relationships in this book are much more richly delineated than in the first novel. Here they are products of shared experience, shared jokes and personal rituals, family connections and mutual awareness. When Frank's father is about to die, it is Elizabeth who accompanies him on the visit. Their child stands in the middle of an awkward triangle wanting all to live together and not comprehending the nuances and difficulties of the situation. However her instinct is right, and ex-wife and future wife tentatively feel towards some sort of acquaintance, even friendship, symbolized by the balanced seesaw of the story's conclusion.

"Other People's Children" moves the focus away from heterosexual relationships to the declining friendship between two women who have been the nucleus of a shared house, and have gradually become abrasive towards each other. Over years in the same household Scotty has come to love Ruth's daughter, Laurel, and hers is the greatest loss when the house breaks up. Loving other people's children gives no rights, not even the limited access granted to the non-custodian parent by the divorce court. Ruth's relationship with the self-protective Dennis shows the same sort of male manipulation used by Javo in Monkey Grip, while Madigan, to whom Scotty turns for companionship, is so torn between misogyny and the need for acceptance that he ranks as the most destructive of Garner's male characters.

The Children's Bach extends Garner's range of characters, and puts them in a new arrangement. Whereas previous novels concentrated on the isolation of characters and on the failures of bonding, this novel offers at least one couple in a successful relationship: "She loved him. They loved each other. They were friends." Dexter and Athena embody an innocence which characters in the earlier novels seem never to have had. Their marriage is stable and caring despite the strains put on it by their retarded second son who has a musical sense but not speech. Set against them are Dexter's old friend from university days, Elizabeth, her lover Philip, and her younger sister, Vicky. There is a clash of values in this novel, and a sense that characters are redefining their perspectives instead of being depicted at a stage when they are already locked into a fixed way of seeing, and surviving in, the world.

Music has always been an important motif in Garner's books, and here it becomes dominant. In earlier works it offered, like sex or drugs, a way of immersion or escape. It is associated with most of the characters in this novel, and it generally suggests sanity and harmony. While Philip uses music to exploit people, it is a mark of Athena's unglamorous dedication to making life work, and of Dexter's uncomplicated gusto.

Postcards from Surfers is a collection of stories which offers vignettes on the ways people relate and report themselves to others. In the title story a woman holidaying with her parents who have retired to the seaside writes a series of postcards to a former lover which she does not post because it's "too late to change it now." Other stories tell of chance meetings, visits, trips in Europe and Australia. Males in this collection continue to be selfish, manipulative, and arrogant but Garner ends some of the stories more hopefully in the manner of The Children's Bach. Women trying to make something of their lives ("The Life of Art") are always going to find males unsatisfactory, but they can support each other. Women are always going to be racked by passion for men who want them less continuously and exclusively, but it is possible to "hang on until the spasm passes."

Cosmo Cosmolino, with its eponymous novella and two short stories—all three of which are interrelated—explores themes familiar to Garner's readers, but uses new motifs such as magic realism. Such developments may be an outgrowth of the author's deepened interest in spiritual matters.

—Chris Tiffin

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