The Australian writer who’s spent 50 years warning us that love can kill

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Helen Garner, now 82, is one of Australia's greatest writers
Helen Garner, now 82, is one of Australia's greatest writers - Darren James

When Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip was first published in 1977, it rattled both readers and critics, who were unused to contemporary fiction that dealt with the grit of urban Australian life. Loosely inspired by Garner’s own youth, it’s the story of 32-year-old Nora, a single mother to Gracie, and their ramshackle existence in various communal households in Melbourne in the mid-1970s. “Full summer in the city,” she writes, “chlorine and rock and roll”. The characters spend their days around the municipal swimming pool, where the concrete is “atomic” bright.

Monkey Grip is a love story. Nora falls hard for Javo, “just back from getting off dope in Hobart”. Characters are never formally introduced in Garner’s fiction; they’re just living their lives, and it’s the reader who drifts in and out. What we do know about Javo, though, is that he’s 10 years Nora’s junior, and his bloodstream is full of “junk” and “dangerous idleness”. Nora’s weakness is romantic love; Jaro’s is heroin. “Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference? They can both kill you,” she muses. There’s a lot of sex in the novel; it’s something about which Garner has always written colloquially and candidly. Before her writing career took off, she was fired from a teaching job in the early 1970s because she was too outspoken in sex-education classes.

Today, this 82-year-old former rabble-rousing bohemian is considered one of Australia’s greatest living writers. And in the last half a decade or so, her reputation has been growing in the Northern Hemisphere, as a consequence of which Weidenfeld & Nicolson have acquired 10 of Garner’s books, some of which have never been published before in Britain. This month sees the release of the first three: Monkey Grip (★★★★★), her debut novel, and The Children’s Bach (1984, ★★★★★), her third, then the Windham-Campbell-Prize-winning true-crime book, This House of Grief (2014, ★★★★★), the account of a father standing trial for the murder of his three children.

As in Monkey Grip, desire is the motivating factor in The Children’s Bach. “Something important is happening in this family,” thinks Vicki. She moves in with Athena and her husband Dexter, who’s a friend of Vicki’s elder sister Elizabeth; then, when Athena runs off with Elizabeth’s sometime-partner Philip, Vicki becomes a surrogate mother-figure to Athena and Dexter’s two boys – “and I am part of it now, whether I like it or not.” It’s a game of interpersonal musical chairs, the characters’ restless ease matched by Garner’s roving narrative point-of-view.

Robert Farquharson in Melbourne during his second trial for murder in 2010
Robert Farquharson in Melbourne during his second trial for murder in 2010 - Alamy

And with the same confidence with which Garner drops the reader into the middle of the action in Monkey Grip, here you might be halfway through a paragraph before you work out who’s talking to whom. Such bravado is a form of artistry that masquerades as something closer to artlessness. This is one of Garner’s greatest talents: her ability to portray life on the page as it’s really lived, chaotic, scrappy, sometimes wonderful and oftentimes horrible. Compared to Monkey Grip’s more expansive cadences of addiction – romantic, sexual, pharmaceutical – The Children’s Bach comprises a more compactly curated string of scenes, as if in montage. Both, however, draw on a recognisably Woolfian fragmentation of self and experience. (It’s no coincidence that Nora seeks solace in reading To the Lighthouse.)

Given Garner’s obvious attraction to what she describes succinctly in The Children’s Bach as “the mess of everything”, it makes a strange sense that she’d also turn her talents to true crime. The domestic is the realm of routines, child-rearing and making dinner, but it’s also where people have sex, take drugs and do terrible violence to one another. “Once there was a hard-working bloke who lived in a small Victorian country town with his wife and their three young sons,” reads the opening line of This House of Grief. This “bloke” is Robert Farquharson, whose boys (aged 10, 7 and 2) drown when the car he’s driving veers off the road and plunges into the waters of a deep dam. The book is a gripping, keen-eyed account of a now-infamous Australian murder trial, but it’s also the messiest of domestic stories: a failed marriage, a broken-hearted man, three dead children, and two grieving families torn apart.

At one point during Farquharson’s 2007 trial – which Garner attended – the defence attempted to argue that because the defendant loved his children, there’s no way he could have committed the monstrous act of which he stood accused. Garner doesn’t buy this. “There it was again,” she writes, “the sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges.” Garner’s no fool. She knows that love is dangerous stuff.

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