Book review: Helen Garner's Everywhere I look

For one of Australia’s best regarded authors, Helen Garner has weathered her share of criticism for writing autobiographical fiction. Yet every one of her books serves as a quiet rebuttal to the notion that prose provoked by one’s own experiences is something to be shunned.

The criticism began in the late 1970s following the publication of her first novel Monkey Grip, which made no excuses for its searing honesty and eddying structure as it captured love and motherhood in Melbourne’s heroin-laced alternative scene.

The book went on to become an Australian literary classic and was adapted into a feature film. Garner herself would continue to draw closely from her personal experiences in an almost 50 year career spanning fiction and nonfiction.

While the autobiographical wellspring is easy for some to criticise, it works. Her perhaps best known book, the quietly harrowing account of living with a friend dying of cancer in The Spare Room published in 2008, reveals this approach as at the core of her work’s enduring relevance to successive generations.

By weaving her own life into piquant tales, Garner’s books promise readers our own ordinary lives could perhaps have the resonance and beauty of her stories.

The author’s most recent work, the essay collection Everywhere I Look, shows this again with its diverse set of short essays on topics as varied as kitchen tables, Tim Winton, Anzac services and fragments of conversations spun into stories.

But it is when this writer takes her readers by the hand and leads us into grimmer emotional landscapes — of court cases and the aftermath of violence — that Garner’s limpid prose is at its most potent.

“But everybody knows that love is brutal. A thousand songs tell the story. Love tears right through to the centre of us, into our secret self and lays it wide open…What people find really hard to bear is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls.”

This potency is tempered by Garner’s own presence in each story. Her voice a note of, if not hope, than simply in the healing and wisdom time brings. Everywhere I Look is a collection that stars the passing of years. One in which three husbands and more heartbreaks can be skimmed over in the opening pages and huge concepts captured in a handful of lines.

Of a prison penpal turned partner of a soon-to-be released prisoner testifying in court, Garner writes:

“Like her, every person here trembles for the witness, this brave, foolish, big-bosomed girl in her white blouse and chipped nail polish, the girl who wants to love and to be needed, and is offering to go in, carrying all our hope and dread, where justice fears to dread.”

Garner’s deceptively simple tone is free from jumbles of adjectives and overwrought metaphors. Her narration moves through stories saturated in sorrow as a guide might through precious national parklands does, drawing our attention to elements of the human experience while taking care to leave only the lightest trace of the hard work spent writing them: of the hours of arduous writing and rewriting that stories as moving as these demand.

Similar to a hike, the book is best enjoyed without straining to finish it. It’s full of moments to pause and reflect. More importantly, it stirs up that addictive, expansive feeling only the best books can achieve: that you have reached the final page changed, perhaps even a better and more thoughtful person from having travelled alongside Garner’s observations for a time.

Everywhere I Look is one of those books you read knowing you will most likely never put down or place on your shelf. Instead you will pass it on to a friend or family member as soon as you have finished it, and hope they do the same.

Everywhere I Look it published by Text

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You can buy the book here

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