Reflections on Helen Garner in the Summertime

On the Australian author.

Art by Nandini Dhir.

Helen Garner’s fiction feels like the Australian summer at its peak: the days get longer, the air gets thicker and the scent of jasmine resurrects the streets from the calm comfort of the cold. Children run amuck in overgrown backyards, clamber between houses through gaps in fences, and fall asleep amongst piles of handbags at Christmas parties and on New Year’s Eve.

The Melburnian summer is, to Garner, what Verona was to Shakespeare, what New York City nightlife was to the Bennington College crowd, and 1920s Paris to the writers of the Lost Generation. Bohemians pile into sticky, overcrowded terraces and tensions rise just as heat makes its way up creaky staircases to their top floors. The dirty dishes pile up and newspapers scatter the kitchen table — the sport and business sections were discarded long ago. 

When I first read Garner’s fiction, I was freshly seventeen and in the depths of a European winter — drowning in cheap spaghetti and my Uniqlo puffer coat. When the homesickness felt interminable, I retreated into Garner’s suburban dream. I was transported to the backyard barbecues of my childhood: 16 Lovers Lane played in the kitchen while the grown-ups reminisced about long nights at The Dug Out Bar. 

Garner took me back, too, to the pool at the end of our street. My neighbours and I would spend Sundays avoiding bindi-eyes in the unkept grass and collecting coins at the bottom of the pool — hoping to gather enough to buy a musk stick from the corner shop. In Monkeygrip, the Fitzroy Baths become a stage for dramatic action and emotional turmoil  — characters dived in and out of love, “surveyed the antics of the children and gossiped benevolently, straw hats pulled down over [their] eyes.” The scalding heat of a summer’s day exudes from the concrete slabs through threadbare towels, and crowds of young Melburnians submerge themselves in the bright blue water. Garner celebrates the nights at the Kingston, Southern Cross or Ormand Hall, and even more so, the long walks home through neon streets, pushing through North Melbourne’s Friday night crowds: “Full summer in the city: chlorine and rock and roll.” 

To me, Sydney is perfect in the week between Christmas Eve and New Years Day. Everyone pours out of town — families chuck their belongings into SUVs and take off up the coast, others head home to Melbourne or Adelaide, and the eastern suburbs jetset files onto a Qantas airbus for ski season and a white Christmas. The streets are deserted — If I’m lucky, I can get from my poky house just off south King Street to Bronte in less than twenty minutes. 

This is Garner’s Sydney. The southerly change bursts through the city and brings reprieve from the oppressive heat and emotional turmoil in Melbourne. Where back home, the flat geography and ocean-less horizon becomes stifling, in Sydney the storm finally arrives. In The Children’s Bach, clouds “hang in lurid loops” and harbour glistens. Her characters wander aimlessly through the silent streets —  whispers of piano, violin and clarinet float out of The Con, “white as an ocean liner, with its two high palm trees flying like flags … The thread of melody, never meant to combine, mingled and made a pleasant, meaningless discord.” 

Time and time again, Garner’s women come to Sydney with their romantic partners looking for an escape — whether that be from prying eyes of partners and friends; or in Nora and Javo’s case, the drugs — they arrive loved up but leave on the overnight train, alone. 

Yet, for all Sydney’s glare and colour, Melbourne is always Garner’s muse. After writing Monkeygrip, a Parisian sojourn left her totally devoid of inspiration. “I could hardly write at all there and I was so homesick, it was pathetic … I thought this place has nothing to do with me, and I’ve got nothing to do with it,” she told Jennifer Byrne in an interview for the Wheeler Centre. “I think that every story that could happen in the hearts of people can happen in this city just as well as any other. I’m not interested in trying to write from anywhere else.” 

Still when I read Garner, I feel like I’m back at the lino kitchen table of my childhood home. Just like the homes of her characters, the kettle is perpetually whistling away on the stove, and friends and family flow in and out of the living room, sustained by whatever is lying about in the cupboard. 

Garner’s ability to capture the bohemian Australian Dream through all its seasons has cemented her place in literary history. She represents the complexities of friendship and communal living from her youth, in Monkeygrip, through to older age, caring for a dying friend in The Spare Room. Her characters are filled with the generosity of the human spirit and plumb the darkest depths of narcissism and addiction. But more than anything, what remains long after reading Garner’s work is the sound of bicycle wheels, spinning down suburban streets and the billowing of her white cotton sheets hanging out to dry.