Oh Helen Garner, how I love you so. And it is a great love, filled with respect, fuelled by creativity, but it is also pragmatic, everyday, aware of quirks and details and regular goings-on. She is a consistently excellent writer, and the collection Everywhere I Look is no exception. It pulls together reviews and essays, journals entries and true stories from a period of over 15 years. From the pleasure of re-reading Pride and Prejudice, to the immensity of moving house, to the trial of a woman for infanticide, to the insults of age, what emerges out is a multifaceted portrait of Garner’s life. It is a writer’s life, an intellectual one, embedded in the home and the family.
Amongst the more formally structured reviews and essays are insights into the life of Garner, and the work of being a writer. It is a daily toil that shapes a life; it is intimate at times but never feels exposed or confessional. There are a sort of underplayed behind-the-scenes on the creation of some of her other, and some essays also reveal the structure behind writing them; they show the magician pulling the strings. Garner is self-aware enough that when her razor-sharp eye is focusing on herself you get the same quality of reflection and understanding. I felt such joy when I read lines like the below, Garner so succinctly capturing her motivation as a writer:
“If he had been a monster, I wouldn’t have been interested in writing about him. The sorts of crimes that interest me are not the ones committed by psychopaths. I’m interested in apparently ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.”
And she is also very, very funny. You get the impression of a deeply intelligent and perceptive woman who sometimes has just run out of fucks to give. It is a life fully lived, accompanied by a writer in her full stride. This is a final snippet ending a chapter of journal entries:
“Sally gives me a new Tom Jones CD which to my astonishment contains two songs of such funky splendour and huge horn sections that I dance wildly by myself in the kitchen. I wish there could be a club in a plain-looking suburb where you would walk through the door on a Friday night and find a funk paradise – everyone you’ve ever liked or loved or slept with or rejected or been rejected by, adorable people you’ve never met, strangers looking into each other’s faces and bursting out laughing, detectives and journos in suits struttin’ with their elbows out, gangs of Asian students, dignified old Jewish couples, backpackers from every land, lonely boys and bored teenage girls rushing out onto the floor. All crippling thoughts of cool would vanish, and everything would be forgiven, everything redeemed.”
There is a magic of language, which Garner both masters and revels in. It feels like she takes real pleasure in the exactness of the way she writes: it is minimalist without being sparse, conveying a moment with a pure exactness of words with no more or no less. And it is the way she sees the world also: she has a perception and insightfulness that feels so revelatory and true. It is a way of seeing that feels just under the surface, so very real, but only she has the access to see it, hold it in her hand, realise it on a page.
Garner is feels like a rare gem: precious, important, valuable. She is a writer of such perception and talent that she consistently blows me away with her insights and how she communicates them. She is intelligent, sensitive, and at times bloody funny. This collection reveals so many aspects of this writer, in so many ways. I loved it.