A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work

I’ve always considered myself a Helen Garner fan, even though I haven’t read much of her work.

I remember my introduction to Garner when I read Monkey Grip at university. It was both unashamedly Australian and of the female experience in a way I hadn’t encountered in literature up to that point. Not only did she talk unabashedly about periods but she also captured every day Australians in the way they spoke and lived, the city they lived in and the air they breathed. This may not seem like a big deal, but it certainly was in the early 90s when the cultural cringe was still a thing.

The next piece of Garner’s that I read was The First Stone which was a problematic examination of a sexual harassment case in a Melbourne University. I had some sympathy for where Garner was coming from at the time (there are some things that can be dealt with without getting barristers involved) but I think I would have a different view if I were to reread the book now. Again, this was the 90s and the landscape of what was ‘acceptable’ was rapidly changing. At school I had been told that girls couldn’t succeed in maths, had been reprimanded ‘in jest’ for being at the top of the computing class (the boys should be doing much better than you) and been warned by my father against selecting the title of “Ms” as this would flag me as being “trouble” and ruin my job prospects. I think the piece that Garner and I both missed at the time is that just because that was the way it was, didn’t mean that it was the right way for things to be or that it couldn’t change for the better.

This year I picked up House of Grief where Garner follows the epic legal story of a man who drove his three sons into a lake and was the only survivor. I remembered the case as I had been a newly single mother at the time, and to think that a father could do something like that to his children absolutely horrified me. Garner digs into the case, and interviews a some of the boys’ relatives as well as sitting through the trials, sentencing and following appeals. It is a powerful, heartbreaking story.

I was pretty keen to read Bernadette Brennan’s book about Garner and her work when I first saw it, and it’s nomination for the Stella’s certainly didn’t hurt. I really enjoyed Brennan’s examination of Garner, and I learned a number of things that I hadn’t previously realised and found surprising.

Garner wasn’t great at university and wasn’t familiar with feminist writings and works. Garner’s work is so inherently feminist that I find this astounding. Feminism is something that I have worked hard at over the years – reading everything from Wollstonecraft to Dworkin to Cixous and Irigaray. I had always thought of Garner as an academic and intellectual. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could be one without the other.

Brennan’s details of Garner’s process were also fascinating. She talks of Garner’s journals that she kept through each writing project, recording her thoughts and dreams. Garner has used Jungian analysis for many years to help her with her writing process, and examining her dreams has assisted with the direction and development of her writing.

If anything, Brennan shows that Garner is constantly working, and when she isn’t actively writing a new piece, she is journalling about the work she is doing, which assists her in working things out and shaping the final piece. I feel that I have learned a lot not just about Garner, but about the act and process of writing from Brennan’s book.

Brennan talks through all of Garner’s works, and how they ricocheted out of her life’s experiences. I’m particularly looking forward to reading The Spare Room, in which protagonist Helen welcomes a friend into her home as she tries a last ditch effort and alternative technique to beat cancer. As you can probably guess from Garner’s use of her own name, this story is a direct reflection on part of her life and is an exploration of her anger towards her real life friend who was completely in denial of her rapidly approaching demise.

Garner has been a part for Australia’s literary landscape for 40 years now and is showing no signs of slowing down. Brennan’s book is a timely celebration of the woman and her work, and is a must read for any Garner fan.



  1. I loved this book and having only discovered Garner in the last couple of years I found it totally enlightening. So far I’ve read This house of grief (my first Garner), Joe Cinque’s consolation (fascinating), True Stories (on audio read by Garner) and Everywhere I Look (also her narration on audio and brilliant). I’ve got the spare room beside my bed and I am on the look out for monkey grip next. Though I think I’ll skip first stone, too problematic for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! I highly recommend Monkey Grip (obviously). It had a huge impact on me as a teen. I can’t imagine the First Stone would have aged well, though it might be interesting to read as a demarcation between second and third wave feminism. I definitely plan to get myself up to date – the Joe Cinque Book sounds gripping.


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