Aussie scrub-bashing with a machete: Marianne Brace talks to the Australian writer Helen Garner about wretchedness and work

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The Independent Culture
MOST NOVELISTS would like to be required reading. Helen Garner, on the other hand, was 'rather shocked' when Monkey Grip featured on school reading lists in her native Australia. 'As I become older and more prim and puritanical, I think 'God - all that sex and drugs, and they let them read that stuff at school'.' It was this novel which somersaulted Garner into the Australian literary scene, winning her the National Book Council Award and cult status.

One of Australia's foremost authors, Garner has written five books. The most recent, Cosmo Cosmolino (Bloomsbury, pounds 13.99) is published here this week. She also has two screenplays to her credit, including Gillian Armstrong's new film, The Last Days of Chez Nous. Admired by writers as different as Raymond Carver and Elizabeth Jolley, Garner has until now been content to stay local, chronicling Melbourne's inner-city life. Her latest work, however, is less cosy.

Helen Garner's debut novel Monkey Grip may have been a Seventies book, but 15 years on the hippies, junkies and single mothers of Melbourne's collective households are still selling strongly, reprinted 'heaps of times'. Garner was 35 when she wrote it. 'I wasn't what you'd call ambitious,' she says. 'The writers I know who are men constructed themselves as writers much earlier in their lives and worked towards it. Women tend not to define themselves as writers nearly so early.'

A keen diarist, she wrote Monkey Grip like a daily journal, seemingly random and repetitive. Its narrator Nora lives out the hippy communal dream where everything gets shared - lovers, friends, children. 'When I look back on that period I'm bewildered by it and that way of living,' Garner confesses.

Some found Monkey Grip sordid; others loved the tell-it-as-it-is realism. But what was interesting was how Garner used minimalism to handle what is essentially romantic: Nora is in love with Javo; Javo is in love with drugs. Javo is addicted to drugs; Nora is addicted to being in love. Both are addicted to addiction. 'It hit some kind of chord.'

'Second book syndrome' followed (her next was considered disappointing), and it was four years before Garner's novella, The Children's Bach, came out. The characters were not so different, nor the material (the emotional turmoil wrought by a wife's fling with a rock musician) but the lean, assured writing was more mature. Postcards from Surfers showed Garner's talent for dialogue and spare prose. In these stories readers are pitched into the middle of lives, fleeting insight colliding with the humdrum.

However, Garner became 'pretty sick of that minimalist feeling', and in Cosmo Cosmolino there is a new sinuousness to her sentences, the author teasing them out, playing with clause and effect. Two loosely linked stories and a novella, it's her first foray into fiction in seven years.

'After my second marriage broke up there was a pause in my life that enabled me to look back at territory I'd crossed. It seemed to me that I'd done an awful lot of scrub-bashing - of all the parts, I'd chosen to go through the thickest, hacking my way with a machete. My wretchedness was such that I started going to church again which I hadn't done since I was a child.'

Garner also had an unnerving spiritual experience, 'a kind of visitation in the sense that there was something in the room with me. I deeply felt this force, I never saw it, it was always behind me. When I tried to tell people about it they thought I was going crazy. I was awe-struck and felt if I took account of it my whole life could change' - as it did. As well as visiting a Jungian analyst who interpreted Garner's dreams ('it was like being taught a language and I think that fed into this book'), she read the Bible from cover to cover. She embraced the language of imagery, the use of emblematic objects and 'many different story-telling techniques. I've finally got rid of the idea that everything one does has to be original. Now I blatantly steal and borrow. It has been very freeing.'

Cosmo Cosmolino perplexed some Australian reviewers familiar with a 'rationalist, old leftie feminist' Garner. In this book angels hover and one of the characters, the unworldly Maxine, even becomes one: 'With a churning roll and a trample she picked up speed and rocketed, whistling-eared, dead vertical from the city's paltry pencil-clump towards the meniscus of day.'

'When you're getting towards 50, people start to die and you have to come up against death. That's what's in this book which isn't in the others, an awareness of death. It's about people who've reached that stage in their life where they can no longer brush off things that happen to them.'

Her characters could be the survivors of Monkey Grip. 'I'm trying to find links between those people and the rest of the world.' There's the selfish narrator of the first story, fearing yet almost wishing her oldest friend will die so that his infallible memory of her past failings may be erased. ('I thought of Patrick, shorn and mapped with dotted lines, lying face down on a table . . . What if the surgeon should lose his way, and broach the box of bone where Patrick's official grids were stored? What if, with his savage light-tip, he could isolate, clip out and finally excise my file from the beechambers of Patrick's memory?')

The second story is about no-hoper Raymond ('he gazed with stupid longing at the line of spruikers outside the porn clubs, kings of the pavement, big fast-talking dangerous boys in long black overcoats and greasy little ponytails who moved him to awe as angels would, they were so tall, so graceful, so inky with unused power.') Raymond's callous indifference to his girl is brought home rather Gothicly as he watches her body being cremated.

And finally there's the trio of the novella - childless, acerbic Janet; batty, artistic Maxine; and Raymond, now a born-again Christian. They are trying to live as a community, but fail utterly to connect.

Poignant and funny, Cosmo Cosmolino could be set anywhere. 'It's not that I scrub out Australianness on purpose. The older you get, the more true it seems that people's inner experiences aren't really wildly different.'

Even so, Garner doesn't hanker after global recognition. 'I could never see myself as an international writer, floated up and out of my own culture. I feel very connected to Australia. That's where I'll live out the rest of my life, and make sense of it.'

(Photograph omitted)