Monkey Grip

This Australian classic, Helen Garner’s first novel, is incredible.  Tight, poetic, rambling, confronting, beautiful and so sensuous.  This book grabbed me tight and pulled me in from the very first. 1970s Melbourne, high times of communal living, music, love and drugs.  “It was early summer.  And everything, as it always does, began to heave and change.”

Nora falls in love with the helpless Javo, and the story is pulled so rapidly, thoughtlessly along by their damaging, painful love.  Trying to work out the decisions they’ve made and the lives they have, they marinate in their ambiguous, intense relationship; the more they try to tear away from one another, the tighter the monkey grip.  The story is told from Nora’s perspective in a kind of artless narration.  There is no philosophising, no pointless explanations; you are just taken along with her into her life.  Characters enter without being introduced, narration is present and in the moment, we are dropped straight into the deep end as Nora throws her gut-feel warnings to the side and dives in with Javo.

This is not a hopeless story, nor one full of pity either.  It is told so remarkably, without ego or aforethought, it creates a kind of damaging poetry, and reading it in the 21st Century it is now almost an ode to a passed way of life.  There is no nostalgia, or romanticisation though.  It is sharp and clear, whirling into the world.

The writing stunned me.  It is so sensorially real, my vision swam before me.  Limbs, recently sunburnt, dry and prickling in the heat.  The sounds of a household in dissonance.  Hot lethargy in your limbs, mind in turmoil, body still.  Itchy feet, pushing for adventure.

I lay down next to him and our hot skins touched.  Up close, his face was crooked, wrecked and wild.  His eyes were blue as blue stones or as water coloured by some violent chemical.  I put my dry hot arm across his oiled back.  He moved like a boy, hard and gentle by turns.  I heard him breathing.

A hundred yards away the children’s laughter evaporated into the blue, blue air.

His burnt face, scarred nose, clear eyes.  Garner distills those moments of sheer clarity where you see the world with a different, sharper focus.  You know that is how it is, what you are seeing right now, and you know it will pass, but that is ok because you got this beauty and crispness for just one moment.

But Javo is not right: unbalanced, vague, out of sync, waiting of the tide – of Nora, of junk – to push him along.  The mood shifts as the season does, and the prickle no longer comes from the hot days but from this unpredictable person next to her, getting pulled further into his addiction to smack.  In a way, Nora is addicted too: to Javo.  Her inner monologues, her searching for some meaning in Javo, or other men, is frustrated by his returns, streaming in and out of her life dictated by his habit.

I loved reading this book.  It was beautiful and painful; the tragedy at times just made me have to stop, close the page, hold the cover and just breathe.  But it was compulsive, so strong in sense, and charming in the beauty of Nora’s artless storytelling.  Garner is an incredible writer, and it is instantly so easy to see why this is an Australian classic.

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