Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look By Helen Garner Text Publishing Company, 2016 Joe Cinque’s Consolation By Helen Garner Picador, 2004 Wry observations on the damage aging can do to one’s self-esteem? Uncomfortably honest musings about human behavior? Gorgeous writing – masterly prose – even in a diary – that confirms the author’s reputation as one of Australia’s greatest contemporary writers? All these thoughts came to mind when I read Helen Garner’s latest collection of essays, Everywhere I Look. It’s a mélange of previously published pieces and diary entries, displaying Garner’s characteristic humor, self-deprecation and brutal self-examination. Garner burst to fame with her novel, Monkey Grip, a story about young people living in squalor and on drugs in inner-city Melbourne. What shocked readers was the realism of the prose (Garner later said the book was based on her diaries) and the fact that the squatters were not derelicts but were middle-class young people who had chosen this life as a slap in the face to convention. She went on to write other novels and several books of non-fiction. One of these, This House of Grief, was reviewed earlier in these pages. Accused by some of drawing too literally on her personal experience and her friends’ lives, Garner is unnervingly honest in her depiction of her own less-than- saintly states of mind. Because she shows her own faults she allows us to feel compassion for those she writes about and for humanity in general. In later years she’s become particularly interested in murderers. She invites us to consider that any one of us could be pushed to the edge to commit a terrible act. In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, her account of the murder trial of law student Anu Singh, who killed her boyfriend, Garner asks, “But didn’t the fascination, the terror of her story lie in the fact that she embodied a barbaric force in each of us that we must at all costs control?” This is the question that underlies all Garner’s work. That urge to murder lies dormant in all of us, she suggests. It’s roused in war. It’s the reason we revel in TV shows about detectives. Then she asks, “What is sin? Is it the inability to imagine the suffering of others?” In her later books Garner comes back again and again to this question. Unsparing of herself, in Everywhere I Look she admits shame for her own youthful actions. To what degree, she implies, is narcissism justified? The artist must seek truth and live authentically. This necessarily involves some pain to others – some not seeing of their suffering. Again and again, Garner confronts the reader with her honesty, nudging us towards our own looking inward – and then towards compassion to ourselves and others. How honest must authors be? And is emotional honesty the hallmark of great writing?

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