BOOK REVIEW / New Age in the land of Oz: 'Cosmo Cosmolino' - Helen Garner: Bloomsbury, 13.99

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The Independent Culture
THE Australian Helen Garner has written a fine, dark New Age fiction, to mark the closing years of the century. It is an unbalanced collection of three linked stories, two short and one long, portraying an unbalanced disintegrating world, in which people drift through broken marriages, abandoned homes and empty lives. The young suffer from boredom and despair, while the anxious middle-aged, always hankering after their hippie days, remember the dead and try to rekindle their lost ideals in a hostile present.

Garner's view of her faded beauties, drifters, friends of junkies, drunkards and rock musicians, as they founder in a morass of fantasy and self-delusion, is sympathetic but beady-eyed. (In some moods she recalls the social satire of early Angus Wilson in The Wrong Set.)

She is very funny about commune life - the shabbiness and quarrels, the fads, the diets and personality clashes - pinning down the holier-than-thou attitudes of her dippy no-hopers, as they surrender to every movement from born-again Christianity to pyramid-selling by con-

men. The fires of feminism have largely died down: men are seen as necessary and, by and large, amiable, though of course completely hopeless; women are strong and psychic, but generally irrational.

It is the irrational which is important in Cosmo Cosmolino. The stories are full of spells, fetishes, auras and angels, all with considerable if erratic power. The bleak ordinariness of contemporary suburban Australia becomes infused with strange sensations and dark visions. In the first story, 'Recording Angel', a woman visiting an old friend who is gravely ill wishes that he was dead; in the hospital corridor she meets a strange child with a gun, a small stone-eyed angel of death.

In 'A Vigil', the weak teenage boy, who is responsible for his girlfriend's suicide, encounters at her funeral two ineffably sinister sentinels. Matey but firm, they frogmarch him downstairs below the crematorium to witness the burning of the poor girl's bones. In the long title-story, Maxine, a pregnant and not entirely cogent wood-carver, who believes in angels and redemption, is assumed from the backyard into the sky in an apotheosis of flowers and clouds.

Helen Garner's prose is so exact and vigorous, so full of creative energy, that these magical events seem a perfectly natural part of the universe, completely without a hidden agenda or a message for mankind. She does, however, manage to convince us of the presence of hope in this almost pagan world. The three stories lighten in tone from utter blackness to a faint dawn, and in the midst of it all Garner is careful to plant tokens of a faith in the future. This can be found in the notion that the angel of death is also the angel of mercy or, more prosaically, in the crematorium spirit's rough message: 'You'll be right . . . Things'll be different now.' Cosmo Cosmolino offers optimism for our times.

(Photograph omitted)