Old friends: Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach.

“and Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!”

When I took this skinny book from my shelf, where it was hiding between two rather large and overpowering volumes, I was rather reluctant to revisit it because I, foolishly, had forgotten how carefully each word is placed and how those words combine to take the reader past the depicted world of mundane domesticity into the inner lives of the people.

The blurb, by Don Anderson, on the front cover says it all: ‘Garner is what she has always been – one of the finest, and most modest, of stylists writing in English.’ That was written in 1985, the year of publication, and I dare to say nothing has changed since. Garner is still one of the finest, clearest, writers being published today. There is nothing extraneous; she sees through surfaces to what makes the worlds of her characters tick. In her later writing those characters are real people; see the controversial take on what is or what is not sexual harassment in a university college, in The First Stone, and her  investigations of murder in Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law (2004), and This House of Grief . The story of a murder trial. 

Back to The Children’s Bach.  Short, not sweet but engrossing, Garner paints her characters in small touches; indeed one could say that the whole story is small, being a domestic portrait of ordinary lives changed by one meeting, but the overall is huge. The hinge of the story is a chance meeting in an airport cafe, by two people who had been lovers while at university. The large and loud Dexter is now married with two children, one of whom is autistic. Elizabeth is a presenter on a television show, is separated but has an ongoing relationship because of their teenage daughter (for her). The two families collide and intermingle in various ways.

Garner could be called the Jane Austen of our time in the way the domestic becomes the general, but I won’t do that because I don’t much enjoy Austen (hackles down, please, you fans, there are many of us hiding in the woodwork in fear of our lives if we declare ourselves!), but in her early fiction she does record a certain way of life that was rarely seen in fiction of the time, the inner suburbs of Melbourne that were still daggy and full of university students, ‘hippies’, drugs and rock and roll.  Her first book, Monkey Grip, explored these.

She gave her readers a glimpse of the families also living there in two short stories in one book: Honour and Other People’s Children, and expanded the view  in The Children’s Bach. 

The themes of how to live a life and how difficult it can be are held together by music of all varieties: Athena’s teaching herself piano from the learning book The Children’s Bach, Dexter’s love of classical music and refusal to engage with any other, their daughter’s piano lessons, Philip-the-professional guitarist who tells a student :

‘Listen. I like your song. Look, I’ll give you a tip. Go home and write it again. Take out the cliches. Everybody knows “It always happens this way” or “I went in with my eyes wide open”. Cut that stuff out. Just leave in the images. Know what I mean? You have to steer a line between cliche and the other thing. Make gaps. Don’t chew on it. Don’t explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.’  This is, of course, Garner telling her own writing process.

I am pleased with myself for not putting the book back on the shelf, I enjoyed it thoroughly and read it from start to finish in two sessions. It made me remember just how good a writer Garner is and I’ll be revisiting some of her other work in the future.

And this must be one of the best final sentences written: ‘And Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!’  The reader knows that somehow Athena will put everything right, including herself, and can close the book satisfied.

Make the chance to find and read, or re-read, it’s still in print, after 32 years, and available through Goodreads.com



Author: Glen Guest

writer, editor. All about words.

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