Right in time for Christmas last year, two companion collections of Helen Garner were released: Stories and True Stories. Both hard cover, with rich and bold covers making a statement with their simplicity. In the hands True Stories is weighty and intimidating, Stories slim and secretive. First, I have read True Stories which collects Garner’s short non-fiction written over a period of almost fifty years, in chronological order, finishing with the work of Everywhere I Look, published just in 2016.
This is a life’s work, a whole landscape of writing. It includes some of her most famous essays on family, love and sex and death, about growing up and growing old, about birth and marriage and separation, about travel and staying home. There is absolute command of her craft here: Garner has put the work in for each and every line.
Covering so much time and so many subjects, I feel like I learnt so much about Garner and her writing life with this collection. I was shocked at how intimate and varied it was, the writer cannot help but include herself in so much of her work, delicately and without ego. There is the wonderful, bracing joy of her rediscovery at fencing in late life; there is her first, originally anonymous essay on the wondrous kind curiosity of children asking their favourite teacher to dismantle the fear they have about sex; there is a short sweet meditation on the perfect golden sandals.
Garner is at her best when speaking on the most basic non-negotiables of life: an experience of death, the witnessing of evil, the pole-axing of a grandmother’s love. These are essential experiences of humanity, so pure to wrap them up into our language is to be a master of writing and a genuine struggle. From her tour of the crematorium:
“First, with relief, I see colour, the only colour in the place – orange flames – and then the small end of a coffin. The heat is so tremendous that everything wavers: the coffin is covered with a network of fine cracks, its surface reminds me of an old porcelain jug in an op shop, with a glaze that’s covered in lines while the china’s still in one piece underneath.
I have never been so curious in my life.”
Or from a boat in the Antarctic:
“You call it white, but when you swing your eyes away and back, you see it’s the most delicate, the palest and yet the greyest green. Mint? The Nile? A no-colour. Water colour. Cloud colour. Again and again, the eye returns to feast on the crumpled mystery of ice. One plumbs the word-well. The bucket comes up empty.”
It is language that she loves, that she has worked with and practiced with her whole life, that she bends and shapes to her will. You can simultaneously see the craft and the hours of her work while also racing through effortlessly because of the smooth beauty of it.
Is it rude, or diminishing, to call her relatable? Her distillation of human experience, from the crippling grieving at the end of a relationship to the snarky internal judgements we make about our fellow travellers: both ends of the same spectrum of contemporary life. Her perception captures and puts into words feelings that we do not even articulate to ourselves and somehow manages to make them feel familiar. She is just so bloody good at her job.
This book is a whole world, a whole life to dive into. A life in writing, a writing life, across the decades. I love Garner’s work, and this collection was fresh and exciting to me, with new evolutions, aspects, stories, approaches. You sit on the couch, curled up with the hardcover tome in your lap, at turns cackling, then breathless. Garner is a master of the form.