sometimes witty book reviews
Over two busy days last a few weeks I read Everywhere I Look. I could not believe how much I enjoyed it. That may seem a strange sentence. I shall explain.
I vaguely recollect seeing when I was quite young a documentary about Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977). The dark, shifting cinematography and seemingly ‘dull’ subject matter made up my per-pubescent mind about Garner’s work probably before I had even reached the appropriate reading level. (‘Dull’ only in the sense that at the time stories about ‘big girls’ in poorly lit houses in Melbourne seemed far less interesting than books about dragons, Grimm-style fairy tales and other such magnificent but sadly mythical beings.) Compound this with the Australian school system’s truly phenomenal knack of imbuing Australian students with a powerful dislike of Australian writers* and I was pretty set to avoid any Garner for the rest of my life.
Thank goodness that my friend Charlotte was late for our coffee date last week. I shall explain.
I had told Charlotte not to worry, that I’d just pop into a nearby bookstore a few doors up from the designated cafe while I waited. Eventually Charlotte arrived and ten minutes later we had temporarily forgotten the coffee and were instead perusing the opinion and philosophy shelves. I was trying to express my utter devotion to Alain de Botton (which ironically was initially formed by the gorgeously shot BBC documentaries of his writings that probably aired in the same year as the Monkey Grip doco). Charlotte was telling me about a family friend of hers that wrote prolifically and wonderfully. She picked up Everywhere I Look, held my gaze in the way one book-lover holds the gaze of another and said: ‘I think you would really like this.’
By this stage my internal anti-Australian-writer firewall had blocked even the recollection of where I had first heard Garner’s name. So when I happened across the book on my college library’s ‘New Arrivals’ shelf that same evening I was (thank goodness) relatively prejudice free.
What followed was a wonderful two days of arriving late to lectures and leaving early from tutorials so I could race back and read a few more pages before dashing off to work or more classes. Written as a compilation of articles, diary entries and anecdotes, every chapter was a delight, challenge or comfort. I was relieved that my attachment to the small items of furniture that follow me from college room, to sharehouse and back to college room was pretty normal to Garner. I was in stitches when I read the opening lines of ‘Red Dog: A Mutiny’ and soon my brother, with whom I share a room, was similarly doubled over in mirth. As a performing artist, ‘In the Wings’ managed to reduce me to joyfully cathartic tears.
In short, thank you Helen Garner. I have only once before experienced such a glorious about-face in my reading preferences (more to come on that). I have the delicious feeling that suddenly my reading horizon, pardon the hyperbole, has rapidly expanded westward to a point somewhere near Perth. Needless to say I hunted down Monkey Grip as quick as I could.
Reading suggestion: If you’ve ever lived in Melbourne, Australia then you’ll enjoy this even more.
*With the exception, in my fortunate case, of Miles Franklin. Luckily my mother had repeatedly played to my brother and I, from our infancy, her Betamax tape of My Brilliant Career (1979). Yes, I think we are the last twenty-somethings on Earth to know what a Betamax is.
Adapted from a letter to the author written sent in May 2016.