My favourite Australian read? Helen Garner.
My answer is partly personal. Garner’s novel The First Stonehad a huge influence on my own debut novel, Love & Virtue.Although The First Stone is non-fiction, both share several similarities: both are set at a residential college at a prestigious Australian university; both deal with questions of sex, power and consent.
But the impact of Garner’s work on mine is more than a mere coincidence of setting and theme. It goes much deeper, to the question of: why read, and why write?In articulating it, hopefully I can explain why Garner is one of my favourite reads, generally (not just Australian).
I read The First Stonedecades after it was published, so I was completely separated from the controversy surrounding its initial publication. In asking questions about sex and power, Garner articulated views that I do not share. But what inspired me so much was that, by writing it, Garner asserted that multiple views existed.That two women, both ardent feminists, of different ages could have different opinions. And that they could respect each other by trying to articulate their differences.
When I read, I don’t like being told what to think. I like being invited to see the world as more complicated than I did before. That’s what I tried to do with Love & Virtue, and I only thought it was possible, because I’d found it in Garner’s non-fiction: she invites multiple viewpoints, and insists that situations are not black and white, that the grey exists and is worth discussing.
‘But we asked for an Australian read,’ you say.
Well, my answer is still: Helen Garner. In particular: Monkey Grip,her debut novel.
Monkey Grip is a romance (between Nora, a young mother and writer, and Javo, a junkie), it’s a slice of history (communal living in 1970s Melbourne) and it’s veryAustralian (it opens at a pool on a hot summer day). Like all Garner’s work, I’m challenged by it. The way of life depicted is very anti-capitalist—they reject individual property at every turn, from their communal income, to their shared child-rearing obligations, to their polyamorous relationships. As someone who was raised on a late-capitalist diet of individualism (be the best youyou can be!) and social media (what’s yourpersonal brand?), the community-oriented lifestyle is both alien to me, and deeply intriguing.
Also, it’s beautifully written. Such is my admiration for Garner that it feels like hubris to comment on her style (who am I to pass judgment?) so all I’ll say is: read it. I challenge you to find a spare word. In fact, read it right now—it’s a summer book after all.