29 July, 2008

'Monkey Grip' - Helen Garner

Rathdowne St, Studley Park, St Georges Rd, Queen Vic Markets. Helen Garner's novel turns Carlton and its surrounds into a significant character, one within a melange of personalities, all of whom drift, meet, collide and separate in her chaotic, rambling novel of 1977. The chaos does not apply to Garner's language, which even in this, her first novel, already shows the level of control that allowed her to almost invent a genre with Joe Cinque's Consolation close to 20 years later. Instead it invades the lives of her characters. Drugs, alcohol, sex and relationships are their preoccupations. Children are regarded in the same manner as adults and the grown-ups act with the recklessness of kids. Much of the novel deals with notions of love: of how much is enough to hold together a disastrous relationship; of how hard it is to let go of something that was once wonderful.

The novel focuses on Nora, a 30-something mother to primary-school-age Grace (at the time of publication Garner was 35 and her daughter, Alice Garner, 8) and her volatile relationship with Javo, a heroin addict. The storytelling is purely linear, tracing a period of just over a year, often taking note of the seasons and effects of the weather; however, it jumps, or flits, from scene to scene. Often the location or content of a conversation is seemingly insignificant, yet it is part of a bigger composition: the very deliberate rendering of a lifestyle and a community intrinsically attached to its part of the city and the earth. Garner has said that a lot of the content grew directly from her diaries from the time (and it is often noted, and grieved, by those who have interviewed her about her latest novel, The Spare Room, that she later burnt many of her diaries). It absolutely has that feel of snippets of information scribbled down about what felt important at the time, often under the influence of drugs, alcohol, friendship or emotion.

It is warming to read something so local, something so reverent about a small patch of a much bigger town. Further, it is prudent to bear in mind that this novel is thirty years old, written by a woman, and makes no effort to pretty-up its origins, nor the free-spirited lifestyle of its characters. From a contemporary perspective, it is also fascinating to go back to the beginning of the career of someone who has altered the shape of Australian literature.

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