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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

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Take Me to Paris, Johnny: John Foster

“He was like an exotic bird, the only one of his kind.”

The title of John Foster’s memoir, Take me to Paris, Johnny, is emblematic of the character and life of Juan Céspedes, the author’s lover until Juan’s death from AIDS in 1987. The two men met in New York in 1981 when John, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, travelled to America to research a book.

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The memoir begins when John Foster travels to Guantánamo to visit Juan’s family. The visit which took place a year after Juan’s death should have been the end of Juan’s story, but in Foster’s hands, it becomes the graceful introduction.  It’s a moving, powerful beginning: travelling to a beautiful foreign country of “red earth, banana plantations and hills that were crowned with a darker canopy of royal palms,” eventually to arrive at a landscape that has a “desolate air; it was brown, scarred and smudged with a confusion of railway marshalling yards. The end of the line.”

Deeply interested in dance and loathe to follow his state assigned career, Juan struggled under Cuban culture in which individualism was not encouraged, and like other young friends, Juan “more charmed than ever by the forbidden music from the radio station ar the base,” decided to seek political asylum by escaping to the US naval base at Guantánamo. And it was in this fashion that Juan finally  landed at age 15 in Hell’s Kitchen in 1969 “where the Catholic agency had installed its Cuban refugees in a cheap apartment house.”

The other residents, according to Juan ‘s calculation, consisted of 25 per cent ex-cons, 25 per cent drag queens and 50 percent addicts.

From 1969 until 1981, when Juan met John Foster, Juan’s history is patchy but involved attempts at establishing a professional dance career and a series of patrons–including a priest, but the relationships ended perhaps because Juan’s “tastes [were] too expensive or his occasional tantrums too exhausting.” Juan carefully constructed narratives around these relationships:

They each occupied a space in his memory, and he referred to them habitually, and most fondly, as if they were a line of popes or kings in whose reign an event could be located. That was the way he ordered his memories, very tidily, in much the same way that he arranged his life, in little compartments, so that there would be no unnecessary confusion or unpleasantness

Foster met Juan when the latter was homeless, and a one-night stand morphed into a long-distance relationship. Finally Juan, already ill with various mysterious ailments, moved to Australia where his tenuous residency teetered on a bureaucratic foundation. Some of the details regarding the illness were difficult to read, but Foster powerfully brings home the times and the fears. I’ll mention the Grim Reaper ad here and luckily and coincidentally I saw it recently on an Australian television programme. I’m glad I saw it as I wouldn’t have understood Foster’s reactions to the ad; it’s one of those things you have to see for yourself.

Take Me To Paris, Johnny is Juan’s story, as the author intended, but ultimately it’s the story of a relationship. We see Juan through the eyes of Foster: an exotic figure with a taste for drama, engaging, entertaining, a man whose very existence defies his humble hard-scrabble beginnings.

We walked home, stopping off at the corner store to buy a bottle of Lucozade. According to the label  Beecham Bros supplied this energizing drink by appointment to HM the Queen, which Juan imagined she probably swigged in large quantities to fortify her in her battles with Mrs Thatcher.

While Foster remains in the background, refusing to assign blame or guilt to Juan, their relationship most effectively holds a mirror up to reflect back Foster’s character to the reader. Author John Foster wanted to create a story that transcended death and decay (the afterword by John Rickard goes into some explanation on this issue), and it’s through this afterword that Foster’s character shines through. He was a remarkable human being–full of love, tenderness and grace.

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This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner

“There it was again, the sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges. Surely, I thought, Freud was closer to the mark when he said, ‘We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.’ “

On the evening of the 4th of September, 2005, Robert Farquharson, who’d separated from his wife, Cindy, the year before was driving his three sons back to their mother after a visitation. It was Father’s Day. On the drive home, Farquharson’s car veered across Prince’s Highway between Winchelsea and Geelong, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. Farquharson survived. His children did not.

In spite of the fact that initially Cindy didn’t blame Farquharson for the deaths of her children (this later changed), Farquharson quickly became a suspect for the murder of his sons. Was it his behaviour at the dam when he insisted that two young men who arrived at the scene take him to see Cindy rather than try any rescue attempts? Was it his insistence that the children were dead? Was it his behaviour in the hospital when he was interviewed by police? Or… was it all of the above?

This house of griefAustralian author Helen Garner attended the grueling trial and also attended Farquharson’s subsequent 2010 retrial–a decision she admits that “often, in the seven years to come I would regret” and the book This House of Grief is an elegant, elegiac account of the case as it unfolded at these two trials.

This House of Grief should not be confused with any sort of reportage-style sordid true crime book. Rather the book is a very individualistic approach to this horrific tale which is primarily a study of human nature with anecdotal observations about the court system as a secondary focus. Helen Garner doesn’t hesitate to throw herself into the narrative, and this is a woman whose sensitive emotional antennae are permanently scarred by this grueling trial. Her descriptions of the often shell-shocked witnesses brought the trial to life in all its immense pathos, and she makes it clear that no one walked away from this trial unscathed. At the same time, Garner’s emotionality sometimes drove me around the bend (more of that later)–so much so that I have many ‘WTF’ notes made for certain passages. But let me be clear here–even though I have fundamentally different emotional responses from Garner This House of Grief is an extraordinary, haunting book .

Helen Garner begins attending the trial with an open mind; she wants to “think like a juror,” which is certainly one approach, but it’s also one fundamental difference between me and Garner–darker pathways I suppose–I read the book’s basic synopsis and thought Farquharson was guilty. Admittedly, though, it’s a far more interesting book because of Garner’s ‘open mind,’ so there’s always that argument. Near the beginning of the book, Garner presents a cacophony of voices which represent many of the prevailing attitudes towards the case, and this one quote jumped out.

I don’t get these guys, said a feminist lawyer. Okay, so the wife dumps them. Men don’t have biological clocks. Why can’t they just find a new girlfriend and have more kids? Why do they have to kill everyone?

Well that’s the fundamental question isn’t it?

Garner’s emotional involvement in the case mostly pays off, but there were a few sections that were annoying. At one point early in the trial Cindy’s then boyfriend, Stephen Moules testifies. Garner admits that she “was not the only woman in the court who shot Farquharson a furtive glance of comparison.” A nice touch as this can only be relayed by someone who was actually there, but then IMO Garner goes too far when she dives into her imagination regarding Stephen Moules, who later married Cindy, and the pouring of a concrete slab:

But, having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight on a young woman in Cindy Farquharson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect.

That section drew one of my WTF notes.

Similarly after a particularly grueling day at court, Garner finds herself cuddling her grandson and then later chasing down the hall about to whack another when she pulls herself up short. Garner doesn’t expand this section while explaining that she “got a grip” on herself, but this anecdote seems to be there in order to make some sort of statement about inappropriate parental response and rage. Is Garner saying she frightened herself at that moment? Is she saying we can all lose control with children in stressful moments? Again, time for another one of my WTF notes as there’s simply no way that this incident can be compared to the actions of Farquharson, and while this is Garner’s experience, it’s placement here seems unfortunate.

As noted earlier, I found myself at odds with Garner on many occasions within the book particularly regarding her emotional reactions towards Farquharson. For example, at one point she “flinches” at thinking about Farquharson “stumping home sore-footed” from his cleaning job. At another moment she’s “too embarrassed” to look at Morrissey (defense) after he makes a remark, and later, she expresses a thought regarding Farquharson during the second trial when she says she “pitied him simply for the fact that he had to sit there and endure it all again.” Well if he hadn’t done it, he wouldn’t have had to sit through the trials would he now? But these are examples of me arguing with Garner, and honestly these differences paled in significance to the book’s overall approach and Garner’s attention to meticulous detail that can only be rendered by someone with Garner’s deep sensitivity and desire to understand. I found myself applauding Garner’s intelligent, insightful observations even though we have different, basic emotional responses. Garner’s remarkable coverage of the trial is extensive but goes far beyond the evidence and the facts and figures. And I have to mention the writing which is well paced and exquisite as exemplified in a quote regarding the judge speaking of Farquharson during the sentencing:

He forms a dark contemplation…

I watched the thought, to see what it would do. It firmed up, like a jelly setting. And there it sat, quivering, filling all the available space.

But in spite of my differences with Garner, this is a beautifully constructed, extraordinary book–one that will continue to haunt me. Just as grueling days in court and gut-wrenching evidence leaves Garner “beyond speech,” the book, which isn’t the story of a crime but, importantly, the story of  two trials, shows how everyone involved is impacted by this horrendous experience.  Garner notes how excessive evidence regarding marks left by Farquharson’s car exhausts the jury, the evident pain felt by some witnesses who are emotionally battered by the trial and their testimony,  and also noted are the various personalities involved in the trial: Jeremy Rapke Acting Crown Prosecutor and his “casual coups,” and Peter Morrissey SC for the defense. Finally there’s Cindy herself who emerges from this crucible of pain and grief a warrior woman. I was surprised that the theory of premeditation didn’t appear as much as I would have expected–although of course it’s implied through the tortured testimony of Greg Rice whose wired conversation with Farquharson appeared to reveal a different side of the accused’s personality. I liked Garner’s intuitive theories about memory as it related to the conversation between Rice and Farquharson that took place at the Fish and Chip shop.

As a secondary focus, Garner explores the dynamics of the courtroom and especially zeroes in on witness statements.

The repeated order ‘Just answer the question’ came to sound like a gag or a bridle. How crude, how primitive were the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the face of questions on which so much hung!

Similarly on the subject of cross-examination.

So you get a grip on her basic observations, and you chop away and chop away, and squeeze and shout and pull her here and push her there, you cast aspersions on her memory and her good faith and her intelligence till you make her hesitate or stumble. She starts to feel self-conscious, then she gets an urge to add things and buttress  and emphasise and maybe embroider, because she knows what she saw and she wants to be believed; but she’s not allowed to tell it her way. You’re in charge. All she can do is answer your questions. And then you slide away from the central thing she’s come forward with, and you try to catch her out on the peripheral stuff–“Did you see his chin?”–then she starts to get rattled, and you provoke her with smart crack””Are you sure it wasn’t a football?” She tries to put her foot down–“Oh don’t be ridiculous”– and then judge gives her a dirty look and she sees she’s gone too far, so she tries recoup, she tries to get back to the place she started from, where she really does remember seeing something and knows what she saw–but that place of certainty no longer exists because you’ve destroyed it.

And finally here’s Garner’s partial synopsis of a taped conversation between Cindy and Farquharson two weeks after the death of the children. Cindy is medicated and Farquharson calls to “say g’day.”

Anything she says, in her thick drawling voice, he tops, or appropriates. She’s had a bad week. So has he. She has to make a statement to the police? Imagine what he’s had to do. She has calm days and then really shitty days? That’s like him. Her mum’s been having panic attacks, can’t face going back to work? That makes it hard on him. All those things affect him, ’cause he’s affected everyone’s lives and it’s on his shoulders too. How much more torture are they going to put him through?

Garner’s insightful, detailed recreation of the trial, told in her unique way made me feel as though I was there along with the jury and the witnesses. Due to the subject matter, it was sometimes hard to carry on reading. There’s so much raw pain here.  

I have to thank Gummie at Whispering Gums for bringing Helen Garner to my attention in the first place. In spite of the fact I had my differences with Garner, I know I want to read all of her non-fiction books hoping that they’ll be as extraordinary, intelligent and as thought-provoking as this one. Considering the quibbles I had with some of Garner’s points, but still predict this will be one of my best-of-2015, I think that shows the immense, power of This House of Grief. The murder of children is a tough subject for any writer to handle, and yet Garner treats her material delicately, with great respect and grace. Ultimately the result is a book that shows the best and the worst of human nature and the methods we, as a society, have devised to cope with our darkest behaviours.

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