True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction Helen Garner

“People will always tell you more than you need to know–and more than they want you to know.”

At 800 pages, True Stories is a massive collection of Helen Garner’s non fiction work. A few years ago, I read this Australian author’s fantastic non-fiction  This House of Grief, and it made my best-of-year list. The book was emotionally wrenching, so I wasn’t ready for Joe Cinque’s Consolation. A compilation of the author’s work was enticing and promised, perhaps, a wide range of topics. I was right. In this book, Helen Garner gets everywhere: from a Russian ship that sails to the Antarctica, to the delivery room, the morgue, a gun show, the trial for the murder of Daniel Valerio, a bridal dressmaker’s shop, and a crematorium. She reminisces about an abandoned teaching career, makes observations of familial relationships, a mother sinking into dementia, moving, learning how to play the ukulele and the delights of being a grandmother.

True stories

Helen Garner is a writer who uses her writing to explore herself–something I noticed in  This House of Grief. So in one section of this collection, she describes how delighted she was with her appearance right before a glass of wine lands on her dress. This sort of personal anecdote may seem uninteresting for some readers, and while it’s true that I found some essays more interesting than others, I was also interested in how Garner seeks to understand herself through her writing. For anyone interested in Helen Garner (and even if you’re never read anything by her), this is an impressive collection.

Just as when I read This House of Grief, I didn’t always agree with the author, but I always enjoyed her view on life & living. Garner’s honesty adds a great deal of delight. In Regions of the Thick-Ribbed Ice (a favourite) for example, she admits how she dislikes penguins and wanted to take an orange pebble so badly from the beach in Antarctica, but managed suppressed her desire. At another point, she admits being ambushed by her love for her new granddaugher, and in yet another section, she talks about her love for the ukulele but her lack of expertise in spite of the passage of years. At one point she chronicles the search for a round table and then how a friend’s positive attitude propped up her negative feelings about the table when a craftsman derided its quality.

There are too many chapters to talk about them all, and anyway, whoever reads this is going to have their favourites. Parts are extremely personal, and yet at the same time, there are no rants about her spouses (ex-spouses) or a litany of their failings. But I’m going to talk about the things I take away from this collection:  Helen Garner’s innate curiosity about human behaviour (and that includes herself). The murder trial of little Daniel Valerio is a case in point. What on earth possessed the boy’s stepfather (the man who beat the boy to death) to “make mocking gestures, leering and waving,” to the dead child’s father? When the stepfather bragged of the beatings to coworkers, why did no one report him?

I circle round the dark area of life (mine or someone else’s) to which my curiosity is attracted, and I search for a way in. 

There are a couple of wonderful essays about the author Patrick White. Patrick White: The Artist as Holy Monster is written after Helen Garner reads Marr’s biography of White. She notes “White’s periodic cullings of even his closet friends, using tiny slights or hesitations as pretexts for a ferocious slashing away of their links with him.” Garner had the good and bad fortune to meet Patrick White on two occasions, and while she remembers his kindness the first time they met, she then recalls how badly he behaved with “random, bitchy swipes” on their second meeting. Even this meeting, though, which could end in some nasty observations about White includes Garner’s realization that she allowed White to rant about people and offered no defense–“This is something worth knowing,” she admits. She also speculates about White’s companion, Manoly Lascaris, and how he managed to endure White’s temperament.

Good manners, or great art? Are the two mutually exclusive? Women and men who serve as creators, as Lascaris did, gamble their whole lives on their instincts about their partners’ abilities: a tremendous, dizzying bet.

In Sing For Your Supper, Garner writes about writers’ festivals, and the disappointment she felt when talking to a writer whose story she admired. This is magnified as Garner attends more festivals and observes that the performances of writers at festivals may not necessarily reflect the true quality of their work.

The trouble is that the attractiveness or apparent honesty of the writer is no guarantee of the quality of the work. Plenty of good writers are jerks in person, while others who are charming and generous in the flesh are boring, phoney or feeble n the page.

Finally, Garner’s pure enjoyment of Jolley planted the urge to pick up an Elizabeth Jolley novel.

‘In the middle of the journey of our life’, when we begin to start to feel the weight of the crimes we are hauling behind us, we might turn to literature for wisdom. It is not readily available, but I have always found it in Elizabeth Jolley, even before I knew what I was looking for.

This book review is a contribution for the Australian Women Writers challenge of 2018


Review copy


Filed under Garner Helen, Non Fiction

16 responses to “True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction Helen Garner

  1. I always feel mean about not being a Garner fan when so many people are. I do think she’s a very good journalist but I veer between not being very interested in the personal stuff to being quite disturbed by the way she psycholanalyses others, often very disturbed people as you reference in the Daniel Valerio case.

  2. I liked some of the personal stuff, and was a miss on other parts. The bit about not always agreeing with her is the second thing you reference (not the valerio case so much). I disagreed with Why She Broke.

  3. One of Gert hated it and the other found it thought-provoking. Both of us have a very big problem with her “novel” The Spare Room, which could have been a very good piece of journalism but was dressed up, we think, as a novel, and made use of the personal experience of one of her friends in a very problematic way.

  4. I’m about half-way through this as I pick it up in bits – like you some of the ‘stories’ appeal more than others and as you’ve found I don’t necessarily agree with all her views but I admire the fact that she has them if that makes sense.

  5. I was really impressed by This House of Grief and have would like to get to this collection – I think over here it’s called Everywhere I look. She does seem to provoke “marmite” reactions.

    • At 800 pages, I was expecting some variation in quality and appeal. That seems fair.
      But you’re right, she does seem to provoke that reaction. I’m going to have to read The First Stone now. She mentions being blackballed (I think that’s the term) by feminists who’d never even read the book. I’ll have to see what the fuss is all about.

    • A bit late Ian but True stories compiles three complete collections of Garner’s non fiction, including Everywhere I look. It also contains, I believe, the Why she broke essay which won an award (if I remember correctly)

  6. This sounds terrific. I’ve only read one of her novels and felt the honesty there as well. I guess that honesty is what leads to those marmite reactions, as Ian says. It’s exactly what I love about her. At the same time she doesn’t come across as opinionated. I want to read more of her.

    • I just finished her short story collection and I didn’t care for most of it. It was probably a bad idea to read it so soon after the non-fiction as the stories started to feel non fiction too.
      In the non fiction book she is fired from teaching and it’s one of those chapters that will evoke reactions (IMO).

  7. I somehow missed this when you posted this Guy – I was away from home (visiting my offspring in Melbourne) when this was posted. I enjoyed your posts and the comments. You have probably read my comments on Garner in various posts that I don’t always agree with her (in fact she has infuriated me at times) but I love her honesty. I love that she tackles unpleasant topics and can admit to unpleasant thoughts. I also love her writing. She can sure write a sentence! The literary portrait (not a biography!) that came out last year is really illuminating.

  8. She it contains the Why She broke story. I meant to mention that one: I didn’t like it.

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