In all her work--whether fiction, journalism, or screenwriting--Garner examines contemporary Australian society, particularly the relationship between personal (including sexual and domestic) responsibility and the broader society of the country. Her work is distinguished by a willingness to ask uncomfortable questions and expose hidden aspects of experience, and by a precision of expression that marks her as a stylist.
Garner was born 7 November 1942, the eldest of the six children of Bruce Colin Ford, a wool merchant, and Gweneth (née Gadsden) Ford, a kindergarten teacher in Geelong, a coastal city forty-five miles southwest of Melbourne. The family remained in Geelong, apart from a four-year period at Ocean Grove, a township fourteen miles further down the coast. After attending state primary schools, Helen transferred in the fifth grade to The Hermitage, Geelong, a private girls' school, where, in her final year, she was dux of the school (student who attains the highest average in external examinations) and head prefect. She won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne, where in 1965 she completed honors degrees in French and English.
As she explains in "The Art of the Dumb Question" (True Stories: Selected Non-Fiction, 1996), she began high-school teaching in 1966, working for the Victorian State Education Department for various periods over the next seven years. In 1967 she traveled to Europe, teaching for a time in London, where she renewed her friendship with actor and playwright Bill Garner. They married on their return to Melbourne in 1968, and their daughter, Alice, was born on 14 September 1969. The marriage ended in 1971. Helen was part of the Australian Performing Group collective that wrote and produced the feminist theater piece Betty Can Jump in 1972, and she was active as a writer in the collective that produced the countercultural magazine Digger. In October 1972 she published an article in Digger about her frank responses to her pupils' questions about sex (republished in True Stories: Selected Non-Fiction ). Her dismissal for the use of "four-letter words in the classroom" resulted in a strike by the teachers' union in 1973, but she was not reinstated.
With the end of her teaching career, Garner turned seriously to writing. Living on a single mother's pension, she spent 1975 working mainly in the reading room of the State Library of Victoria, transforming her diary into the novel that was published by the new firm of McPhee Gribble as Monkey Grip-- Garner has always given credit to Hilary McPhee as the editor who helped her become a novelist. During this time, Garner and her daughter were living in various group houses in the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne, and her novel followed the love affairs and relationships of a single mother called Nora as she struggled to reconcile romantic love and feminist independence. Garner circulated the manuscript among her friends, who were clearly models for the fictional characters. While no friend protested, some critics seized on the autobiographical elements of the novel as evidence that it was self-indulgent and artless. Monkey Grip won the National Book Council award for fiction in 1978 and was adapted as a motion picture in 1982. Within a few years it sold more than 100,000 copies.
Monkey Grip follows the course of Nora's obsessive love affair with a heroin addict and so belongs to a tradition of naturalist fiction about destructive love in bohemian society. The novel also indicates its provenance by alluding to writing about women's desire by women writers such as Jean Rhys and Doris Lessing. At the same time, it explicates the contemporary moral and practical difficulties of a woman determined on independence and equality, but prey to the romantic and random appeal of sexual desire. Nora's friends also experience the dilemmas of sexual freedom in a society in which men are ready to exploit women's openness and in which the responsibilities of child rearing continue to fall to women. The novel puts into practice some of the theories of women's liberation in the 1970s, only to find the limitations of women's power as lovers and their responsibilities as mothers. Nevertheless, Nora's determination to live a free life suggests that acceptance and responsibility are part of mature liberation.
Kevin Brophy, in his 1992 article in Australian Literary Studies, maps the changing critical judgment of Monkey Grip from a raw account of life in the counterculture to a modern literary classic. While the subject matter and loose structure of the novel incited some initial censure, critics continue to admire the energy and evident struggle to capture reality in its technique, what Peter Craven sees in his Meanjin survey of Garner's work as "the echo of experience, of imagination representing experience, rather than invention." In his 1992 interview with Garner, Ray Willbanks comments that the novel moves to a sexual rhythm rather than a conventional narrative pattern. Kerryn Goldsworthy, in her 1996 book on Garner's work, notes that the novel refers to a wide range of women's art and asserts the importance of writing as an activity that allows space for women.
After the publication of Monkey Grip, Garner was awarded the first of a series of Australia Council grants that enabled her to spend two years in Paris writing the two stories published as Honour & Other People's Children (1980). While in Paris she met French journalist Jean-Jacques Portail, whom she married in 1980. "Honour" traces the difficulties of a woman coming to terms with her former husband's plans to remarry and her daughter's accommodation of the new arrangement. The story presents a series of scenes in which undramatic events take place: the man tells the woman of his plans to divorce her; they travel to the country to visit his sick mother and, later, to attend his father's funeral; and the woman helps her sister's family while her sister gives birth to a new baby. These scenes celebrate the shared history of marriage and family, carefully weighing the emotional cost of separation against the confinement of domestic life. As the title suggests, the woman, the man, and his new wife attempt to behave honorably to each other so that the shifts in emotion are quiet and subtle rather than overt. "Other People's Children" observes the emotional attachment between a single woman and her friend's small daughter, but the prior rights of the mother win when the friendship ends. The two women in this story, Scotty and Ruth, represent two perspectives on the feminist counterculture: Scotty, the independent career woman who rejects the traditional family, and Ruth, the romantic, maternal earth mother. The men these women encounter practice different kinds of irresponsibility and exploitation of women. Ruth's former husband abandons her, but she begins a relationship with a trade-union ideologue; Scotty meets an unemployed musician who relies on the women in a hippie commune to feed him and care for him. The story examines new forms of family and observes the effects on children of the battle between romantic love and parental responsibility.
In his 1985 Meanjin article, Craven admires the restrained style in Honour & Other People's Children, seeing it as a shift from "free-wheeling naturalism to a tighter more thrifty realism." Goldsworthy sees the two novellas as explorations of the gap between theory and practice, with the woman in "Honour" trying to create a new, unconventional family role for herself, and Scotty and Ruth in "Other People's Children" failing to live out the ideals of collective life.
Garner and Portail settled in Melbourne, where the movie of Monkey Grip was made in 1982. In 1984 Garner's novella, The Children's Bach, was published. In this work, Garner's characters are older and more disillusioned about the possibilities of relationships. The central household is a conventional family in which Dexter Fox, an academic, dominates his wife, Athena, and their two sons, one of whom suffers from autism. Dexter's old friend Elizabeth, her lover, Philip, and her sister, Vicki, are attracted to the comforts of the Fox household. Garner juxtaposes the several strands of this narrative of families--Philip's relationship with his daughter Poppy, Elizabeth's with Vicki, and the Fox family's lives--then intertwines them as Athena leaves home for a sexual adventure with Philip. While Elizabeth and Philip are cynical about the possibilities of love, Dexter imposes his vision of the ideal family on Athena, who breaks away only to return to an acceptance of the ordinary routines of domestic life. Philip's advice to Poppy contrasts the two visions of his imagined Paradise Bar--by day a place of "reason and courtesy," by night full of danger and sordidness. He exhorts her, "Work, Poppy. Use your brains."
From this commonplace material Garner extracts the twin appeals of domestic stability and a more dangerous and exciting underworld of sexual adventure. In his 1991 article for Westerly, Nicholas Mansfield finds in the novel a "pathos of fatherhood" in the depiction of Dexter, Dexter's father, and Philip as well-meaning but incompetent fathers. He argues that the shift of the story to Athena's perspective reveals a challenge to the heroic aesthetic passionately admired by Dexter, in which great artists struggle to create meaning and resolution from life. Athena's view of art is modest, personal, and indefinite, not a matter of historic achievements but of small, unpretentious pleasures. Mansfield notes that this kind of aesthetic may be applied to Garner's own art, with its openness and refusal of authority. In this way, Garner may be seen as a postmodern writer who maintains a pluralist approach to meaning. Bill Ashcroft, in "The Language of Music," notes that music operates as a form of language in the novel, analogous to poststructuralist feminist ideas about language, so that the male characters are confident and musically expressive (Dexter's operatic arias, Philip's rock performance) while the women remain tentative in performance (Athena's piano struggles, Poppy's cello lessons). In his Meanjin article, Craven insists that music represents itself in the novel, reminding the reader of its integral role in ordinary life, as well as providing a metaphor for other languages and arts. Philip's advice to the aspiring songwriter may be read as Garner's own approach to her art: "Make gaps. Don't chew on it. Don't explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest."
Postcards from Surfers (1985), a collection of short stories published a year later, continues the practice of "making gaps"; postcards suggest rather than fully explicate their situations. The narrator of the title story visits her parents in Surfers' Paradise, capturing fragments of her relationship with them in a series of postcards that she never sends to her lover. "The Life of Art" presents a collage of moments in the lives of two women friends, marking events as "before" and "after" feminism. Several of these stories experiment with different voices and styles: "Little Helen's Sunday Afternoon" explores a kind of suburban Gothic; "The Dark, the Light," a chorus of gossip; "All Those Bloody Young Catholics," a dramatic monologue by a man. In her 1992 Scripsi survey, Eden Liddelow reads these stories as Garner testing various nonrealistic European influences, especially in the binaries of "Little Helen's Sunday Afternoon" and "The Dark, the Light," with moments of "unaccountable blessedness" as in the tiny "A Happy Story," which ends the collection. Bruce Bennett, in Australian Short Fiction: A History, suggests that the sensibility of Garner's normative narrator allows the stories to extend their realist base toward poetry and notes a kind of "musical and rhetorical notation" in the stories.
Garner's screenplay for Two Friends experiments with time, spiraling backward from the funeral of a teenager to explore the alternative paths of two girls trying to find their way through the attractions of sex and drugs, while their parents negotiate their own broken and patched relationships. Her perceptive observations of children, evident in all her early fiction, become central to the script; the teenage girls long for the adventure of adulthood, but the drama suggests imminent dangers, not least because of the negligence of self-absorbed adults. The unwinding time sequence of the motion picture explores the girls' nostalgia for a more carefree childhood while insisting on the relentless drive toward adulthood. Two Friends was an outstanding production during a period of exceptional ABC television drama. Nevertheless, the reverse time sequence makes multiple viewing necessary for full appreciation.
In 1985 Garner's marriage to Portail ended, and she spent her time from 1988 to 1991 living in Sydney. She had begun to publish more nonfiction work, particularly feature articles and reviews for newspapers. Suffering a crisis of confidence and direction at the end of her second marriage, she did not publish another book of fiction until 1992, Cosmo Cosmolino , two related stories and a novella. Her interest in matters of spirituality led her to return to attending the Anglican Church. In "Dreams, The Bible and Cosmo Cosmolino" (in True Stories) she explains that she was trying to find ways to incorporate dream states into her writing: "to get beyond the fairly simple psychological realism I'd been writing previously and out into a more wondrous world that would still stubbornly be this world." In "Recording Angel" a woman narrates a story about her visit to an old friend, Patrick, as he prepares for surgery for a brain tumor; in "A Vigil," a careless young man, Ray, finds the dead body of his girlfriend and then is forced to watch her cremation. The longest story, "Cosmo Cosmolino," is confined to Janet's Melbourne house, where Ray comes to live, and a strange artist, Maxine, changes the perceptions of the others. Janet appears to be the narrator of the first story, and the mother of the dead girl in the second story is one of her old friends. Angels appear in each story--a little boy near the entrance of the hospital where Patrick lies recovering from his operation, crematorium workers in "A Vigil," and in Maxine's vision of Ray and her transformation in the final story. The book confronts death and the living death of those without hope. Janet's house serves as a metaphor for her spiritual emptiness, but the entry of Ray, a newborn Christian, and Maxine, the New Age artist who believes in everything, offer only the most tenuous comfort.
In these stories Garner appears to be pushing a naturalist style to its limits. She documents physical decay--the bloody sanitary pad strapped to Patrick's head, the vomit in Kim's mouth as she lies dead, the neglected rooms in Janet's house--and from these unblinking confrontations of the limits of material experience she elicits a tentative spiritual hope. The tiny cradle that Maxine has created from sticks represents the fragility of any redemption offered in the story. Maxine ascends into a world where there is "no more I." The process of writing the story may be read as a fight for meaning and a release from the artist's self.
Despite the slight hope offered to the characters at the end of the last story, Cosmo Cosmolino creates a bleaker vision than any earlier Garner story, and critics were ambivalent about its success. Some found Maxine's release into the sky above suburban Melbourne an unconvincing excursion into "magic realism"; others found that Garner's more elaborate style, particularly in the last story, drew too much attention to itself. In Scripsi, Liddelow commented that in the final story readers miss the humor and intimacy of Garner's earlier stories, but she sees this story as a "charming metafictional swansong" as Garner moves beyond autobiography.
In her 1995 essay in Westerly, Philippa Kelly reads Cosmo Cosmolino as an exploration of female transgression against the masculine symbolic, as formulated by Julia Kristeva. Thus, "Recording Angel" confronts Patrick, the keeper of linear time, with the possibility of his own loss of memory and death and the narrator with her own dislodgement from history. Kelly argues that Garner balances the elements of historical necessity--the world designated as patriarchal by feminist theory--and a transgressive and transformative female activity within the story. In this way, Maxine's fragile wooden cradle challenges the male characters.
In Sydney, Garner met novelist Murray Bail, and they moved back to Melbourne in 1991, marrying in 1992. That year the movie produced from her original script, The Last Days of Chez Nous , was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. Like her stories, this drama examined domestic life in an unconventional family--the marriage between a Frenchman and an Australian woman writer whose daughter and sister share the household. While the writer is traveling with her father in an attempt to resolve their strained relationship, her husband and sister embark on an affair that ends the marriage. The movie examines the nature of family loyalty and sexual love, juxtaposing the arguments of father and daughter in the outback with the changing relationship of sister and brother-in-law in the city terrace. The scenes between the writer and her father observe the ways that a battle of wills might disguise the existence of caring love, while the domestic scenes contrast maternal responsibility and sexuality. The sister declares that "Love's more important than anything," but the closing scenes suggest some kind of spiritual promise beyond romantic love. In the published screenplay (1992) the writer walks toward a line of cypress trees that have been visible from the upper windows of the house, suggesting an ancient connection with death and the soul, as Garner explains in "Cypresses and Spires: Writing for Film" (in True Stories). In the movie, the cypresses are replaced by a church spire, making a more explicit reference to Christian religion--though it is qualified by the upbeat jazz music that plays at the end. In "Cypresses and Spires" Garner also comments on the differences between the setting in Sydney and her conception of the story as contained within the more confined spaces of a Melbourne house.
In 1992 Garner was infuriated by an account in the newspapers of a public charge of sexual harassment against the Master of Ormond College at the University of Melbourne and began following the case. Her researches are detailed in The First Stone: Some Questions about Sex and Power , an account of the case that lamented the rise of an ideological and puritanical feminism. Garner attended the final court hearings and interviewed many people who were involved in the events leading to the court case, including the Master. The young women who brought the charge, however, refused to be interviewed, and the book ends in frustrated speculation about their motives. Garner appears to defend the Master against what she sees as the timidity and ideological narrowness of the women and their supporters. At the same time, her account of the case draws attention to the failure of the college administration to act quickly on the allegations and to the networks of patriarchy and class behind college traditions. The book divided readers: Garner was attacked as a betrayer of feminism and young women, and hailed (often by conservative men) as exposing the rigidity of ideological feminism. Her decision to break one of the women's supporters into several different characters in the book led to charges of misrepresentation; in response, Jenna Mead edited a collection of essays, called bodyjamming (1997), which includes a statement by one of the complainants, several essays on contemporary feminism, and attacks on Garner and her work.
Within a year of publication, The First Stone achieved best-seller status in Australia, and it continues to incite arguments about the generational differences between feminists and about public attitudes toward women and sex. In her 1997 Imago essay, Bronwen Levy remarks on the extraordinary level of attention and discussion the book has generated and suggests that it touches sensitivities in feminist intellectuals, who are only too aware of their insecure position in the academic world. While Garner gained a degree of recognition in the literary community from the appearance of Monkey Grip, The First Stone made her relatively famous (or notorious) in Australia.
A few months before the publication of The First Stone, Garner and Bail moved back to Sydney, where she continued to publish journalism, including reviews and feature articles for the weekend magazines. True Stories collects some of this material, ranging from her 1972 article about high-school sex classes in the Digger to more extended journalism for newspapers such as The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, and literary journals. Nevertheless, the book is carefully structured, beginning with a personal anecdote about a sick man from Noumea, marooned without English in a Sydney hospital and ending with a celebration of childbirth in the labor ward of another hospital in Sydney's working-class west. In her introduction to the collection, Garner declares her two commitments--a delight in English language for its own sake and a refusal of inhibiting ideology. Garner addresses the expectation that she should write fiction and describes the relief she finds in journalism, because there is no "irksome obligation to make things up." The first part of the book collects stories about Garner's family and personal life; the second, a range of reviews and reflections on literature; the third, articles that deal with male violence and women's responses to it; and the final section, a series of engagements with the social world, ending with articles on rites of passage--marriage, death, and birth. The pieces in the book demonstrate the same intuitive skill and observation found in Garner's fiction, with "Three Acres, More or Less" turning an account of visits to her bush weekender into a poetic meditation on isolation, fear, and potential violence. "Killing Daniel," about the abuse and death of a small boy in an outer suburb of Melbourne, ponders the failures of a civilized society to protect its children (it won the Walkley Award for journalism when first published in Time Australia in 1993). "Death" describes the same visit to a Melbourne crematorium that inspired the story "A Vigil" in Cosmo Cosmolino.
Critics were enthusiastic about the clear-sighted courage and precise language of True Stories. In her book on Garner, Goldsworthy sees the collection as evidence of Garner's long-standing interest in institutions and her preoccupation with "the necessity for men and women to coexist peacefully in the world." Its appearance in the wake of The First Stone reminded readers that Garner had been probing the hidden weaknesses of Australian society for some time and that she could write about them with verve and surprising honesty. In True Stories one can find a responsive, nonclinical account of what happens to bodies in the morgue or the crematorium and also the everyday miraculous routines of childbirth in a hospital labor ward.
Admirers of Garner's fiction have sometimes expressed disappointment that she has published no novel since 1984 and few stories since 1990. My Hard Heart (1998) republished the stories in Postcards from Surfers and Honour & Other People's Children with three stories published separately in journals in the late 1980s. In 1998 Garner's marriage to Murray Bail ended, and in 2000 she returned to Melbourne so she could be close to her family. In 2001, a second collection of her journalism, The Feel of Steel , confirmed Garner's ability in this genre. The articles are loosely arranged around ideas of home, especially Garner's shift from Sydney to Melbourne after the end of her marriage to Bail. In the first section her emotional crisis stimulates reflections on language and writing. In "Woman in a Green Mantle" Garner reflects on the irrelevance of words to a broken heart and then gradually explores the consolation of poetry. "Tower Diary" provides a series of glimpses of her grief at the end of the marriage, and in "Sighs Too Deep For Words" she reads various versions of the Bible, finding consolation in its narratives and poetry. In the second section, the move to Melbourne occurs, and "A Spy in the House of Excrement" offers a hilarious description of a cleansing regime at a Thai health resort. The third section collects some of the regular, sometimes lighthearted, columns Garner wrote for The Age after her return to Melbourne, and the book ends with the joyous "Arrayed for the Bridal," about the anxieties of young women and their mothers as they prepare for the elaborate ritual of a modern wedding. Perhaps the most extraordinary piece of writing in the book is "Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice," an account of her voyage to Antarctica; Garner refuses to photograph the strange physical world she sees, and her struggle to describe it creates a breathtaking prose poetry. The article begins with journalistic descriptions of the daily routines of the journey but shifts to the heightened writing associated with literature, though it was first published in the popular weekend magazine of a newspaper. In "Woman in a Green Mantle" Garner comments that if fiction seems too artificial, "at least now there exists a developed awareness of something honourable to offer in its place--I mean the dangerous and exciting breakdown of the old boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, and the ethical and technical problems that are exploding out of the resulting gap." This article clearly states her interest in crossing the genre boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, and her awareness of the ethical risks involved, though she holds to the nonfiction writer's contract with the reader to present the facts. These explorations of literary nonfiction have ensured a wider audience for her work than the relatively small group of readers for new literary fiction.
In 1999 Garner began researching a controversial court case in Canberra, published in 2004 as Joe Cinque's Consolation. The book gives Garner's perspective on the trials of two young women accused of killing the lover of one of them by drug overdose. Garner declares her sympathy from the outset; she does not pretend to offer an unbiased legalistic account of events and describes her growing friendship with Joe Cinque's mother. The narrative position of "Helen Garner" allows not only the observation of the traffic of the courtroom with its many witnesses and lawyers, but also an account of the drug dealing in the central shopping area of Canberra and of visits to the family homes of the victim and his killer in Newcastle and Sydney. The narrative insists on the physical reality of Joe Cinque's death, a person left to die amid the mess of an upstairs bedroom of a town house, against the strangely detached attitude of witnesses and the accused in court. Garner transforms this sordid and sad story into an examination of the role of justice, the ethical responsibility of bystanders, and the possibility that psychological disorder may not account for evil. She contrasts the hardworking lives of Cinque's migrant family in Newcastle with the social culture of the young law students in Canberra, whose acceptance of suicide and tolerance for taking drugs prevents them from acting to save his life. While Joe Cinque's death remains a particular story, Garner's account of the cold rationalism of the courtroom invites more-general questions about people's desire for the law to satisfy the human need for redemption and consolation.
Feminist critics have always found rich material for discussion in Garner's writing, and some claimed her as a feminist writer beginning with the publication of Monkey Grip. This claim exacerbated a sense of betrayal when The First Stone was read as a reactionary statement of Garner's allegiance to a 1970s ideal of women's liberation and an attack on a younger generation of women. Garner's defense of The First Stone and her statements about her writing make clear that she refuses to be bound by ideological constraints. After her early experiences of collective life, she is committed to asking questions rather than providing answers. Most often her questions probe the relationship between human experience and the institutions, rules, laws, and ideologies by which people live.
Helen Garner's determination to observe the society in which she lives and her refusal to pretend that public issues do not incite personal responses are consistent with her earlier views. She has always looked hard at the world and struggled to write down what she sees as precisely and as honestly as possible. Some readers regret her move away from fiction; others believe disputes about public institutions should remain the province of experts. Nevertheless, Garner moves forward to explore uncharted territory for the literary writer, on the way demonstrating that good writing can still generate excitement about the sensitive questions of modern times.
From: Lever, Susan. "Helen Garner." Australian Writers, 1975-2000, edited by Selina Samuels, Gale, 2006. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 325.