THE BREAKING OF BONDS and the complicated patterns of emotional distortion that accompany separation are commonplace predicaments in most of our lives and in much of our literature these days. Writing about these troublesome and often contradictory experiences convincingly is becoming more difficult as more and more gets written, and as the stark emotional facts remain intractable, despite the attention given them by writers of fiction, popular psychology and sociology, self-help books, movie and television scenarios, magazine articles, and so on.
Helen Garner is Australian, and it might be because her world view is significantly different from ours in the Northern Hemisphere that her mthods of dealing with this material seem so refreshingly precise and honest. But I am more inclined to believe that it is because she is an outstanding writer. She is outstanding in the accuracy of her observations, the intensity of passion she brings to bear on each page, her radar-sure humor, and her ability to build a narrative by alternating short evocative passages of description (of place and character, but mainly of action) with longer passages of well-honed dialogue.
In "Honour," the first of the two novellas in this book, Frank Maxwell wants to divorce Kathleen, from whom he has long been separated, even though they are still close. They spend time together, they depend on each other, and they have their daughter, Flo, whose existence makes their connection tangible. But Frank wants to marry his new lover, Jenny. Frank and Kathleen are forced to recognize that the intricate balances on which their relationship depends have now shifted. When Flo demands that the three adults resolve their dilemma in a manner that will not lead to the denial of her needs, Frank and Kathleen are obliged to come to terms with themselves and each other in a new and painful situation.
In "Other People's Children," Scotty is deeply attached to Laurel, the daughter of her housemate, Ruth, and has to cope with the prospect of the separation and loss that will follow the imminent collapse of their collective household, a process made all the more painful and difficult by the constant and bitter conflict between Scotty and Ruth.
Frank and Kathleen must find a human solution to the problem of defining their relationship in the aftermath of a broken marriage. The guidelines provided by society do not offer such a solution. In the case of Scotty and Ruth, society doesn't provide any guidelines whatever, so they have nothing to go on but their own emotions, which are volatile and out of control. This lack of definition extends, also, to Scotty's relationship with Madigan, an eccentric musician who hovers on the periphery of her life, as uncertain about her as she is about him. Scotty, the point of focus in "Other People's Children," embodies familiar themes connected with the disasters of modern love. Her deepest emotions lead to loss, rather than fulfillment; her attachments lead to isolation, rather than commitment; her insecurities prevent her from connecting with a possible source of emotional support (Madigan).
Helen Garner has been compared to Ann Beattie. The comparison is inappropriate, but it does lead to an illuminating contrast. One of Beattie's main strengths is her ability to retain an ironic distance from the characters and action she describes, without seeming to condescend. She lets us see how inept and ridiculous people can be, but does not imply that she (as narrator) is above it all, nor does she invite us to feel, through our identification with her, that we are, either. Beattie gives us the advantage of that distance. Helen Garner takes us right into the heart of the action. Her first novel, Monkey Grip (reissued by Seaview, $10.50), chronicled the jagged course of a hopeless love affair between a young single mother and a young incorrigible heroin addict. Garner's uncompromising and unsentimental approach gave the novel a cutting edge that was reminiscent of Jean Rhys' fiction: in the work of both writers there is a combination of sardonic humor, an essentially bleak view of the human condition, and direct, compact, deeply felt prose.
The compactness, in particular, is even stronger in these two novellas. Both "Honour" and "Other People's Children" could have been extended into novels, even to relatively long novels, but Garner has the intelligence and the sharp instincts necessary to realize that feeling is what counts in this kind of writing, more than a mass of information. For example:
"When they had gone the air was utterly still. Swallows passed like a handful of flung pebbles. Darkness swarmed under the thick-leafed trees. It was as if darkness and not light were the force. The orange gravel of the intersecting paths was lurid with the struggle of darkness against light. The water of the lake was not water but some thick, gluey substance incapable of movement. Ducks forced their way across its surface, moving in formation, dragging a wake of arrowheads. Madigan began to walk quickly home, keeping close to the fence."
This passage, from "Other People's Children," creates a mood that defines an aspect of Madigan's character for us much more thoroughly and precisely than a similar amount of literal information might have done, partly because the passage helps create Madigan's world as well as his character, and partly because it allows for more interesting writing. It is Garner's ability to give attention to her narratives as texts (the kind of attention to vocabulary and formal decisions, especially in sentence structure, that we expect from a poet) that makes her an extraordinarily good writer, as well as her ability to create a tableau, with solid, convincing characters. There is not one wasted word in either of these two novellas and, given their subject matter, that is extraordinary enough. Read them.