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



Old friends. Anthony Burgess’s Any Old Iron.


It was interesting reading this after the clarity, verve, and lightness of touch of Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Two blokes writing about the same war, sort of, but chalk and cheese in their storytelling.

Any Old Iron was published in 1989 and is somehow showing its age. Maybe that’s because it was a very late book by Burgess, published only four years before his death; maybe it’s the actual physical book itself: Arrow imprint, of Random Century Group (now there’s publishing history itself!). Or maybe it’s the content; the story.

There are a lot of editing things in this edition (the first imprint): confusing and twisted sentences, typos, a couple of times referrals to the wrong character. I wondered, as I read, if Burgess had become immortal by the time his publishers got this manuscript and no editor was allowed to clean it up.

‘Any old iron’ refers to the sword of King Arthur, or Attila the Hun, depending on how one interprets the letter A embossed on a very old sword that seems to defy age.  So the story is a sort-of rewriting of that Arthurian legend. However there’s no nobility of battle here,  but a tour through various aspects of war: so much seemingly-relished description of fighting and bloodshed, Hitler, Russia during both revolutions, after-effects of war, Welsh Nationalism, Israel/Palestine war and war and war.  This book could only have been written by a bloke! So much aggression.

I rather enjoyed the trip through history, which hung off the strange journey of Excalibur (or Caledvwlch to the Welsh) through those above-mentioned conflicts and into a stone near a small pond somewhere in Wales.  And I really enjoyed the quite sardonic voice of the narrator, who himself was a character in the story.

That said, after a while I jumped over long passages of war-things and over-descriptive sections. I don’t like to do that and would rather give honour to the writer, but it felt like a second draft that had yet to be polished.

I felt it was a poor-relation of his early work, particularly A Clockwork Orange which explored the darkness of society, and that scared the wits out of me in the film version.  That book was not overcome by the brilliant film, but I have no intention of revisiting it.

Next old friend?  Don’t know. I’m about to start editing my book ms when I get the report from the wonderful Elizabeth in a few days. I’ll be in touch.






Old friends: Michael Ondaatje

I’m revisiting some of the old mates living in my bookshelves; Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient was my first pick.

Wow!  Just, Wow!

I first read this just after the film was released in 1996 and obviously didn’t appreciate its brilliance. Or maybe I did, because I kept it, and it (and its many friends) has travelled with me many kilometres up and down the east coast.  The book itself isn’t in too bad condition, considering long periods in packing boxes, a little foxing at page edges only. But I’m confused by the publication details:  the cover is from the film, released in 1996, with Ralph Fiennes looking sexy and staring off into the desert. Colours all yellows and browns, of course. But the publication details read ‘this edition published 1993 by Picador. Maybe Picador just changed the cover – but doesn’t that make it a different edition? The vagaries of the publishing world.

So why did the book so engross me this time? (Don’t you just love rhetorical questions?)

The narrative shape of it, for a start. The assumption that the reader is intelligent enough to follow the jumps through time without a map except the text itself. I reckon that most current publishing house editors would have a fit at this and demand more structure, more signposts as to those leaps. Not mine, of course, as she’s the best.

And the language! Open it at any page and beautiful sentences leap out, polished and perfect for that specific moment in the story. Try these random picks:

‘A novel is a mirror walking down a road. She read that in one of the books the English patient recommended, and that was the way she remembered her father—whenever she collected moments of him…’

‘Removed from his barracks Singh had no idea of his location. There was a map on a roller high up on the ceiling. Alone one morning he pulled the roller down until it touched the floor. Countisbury and Area. Mapped by R. Fones. Drawn by desire of Mr James Halliday. “Drawn by desire…” He was beginning to love the English.’

Desire, of course, is at the very heart of the story. Desire sexual, desire for love, desire for peace, desire for country. And Ondaatje’s  tiny drops of language reinforce that without the reader being aware. Surely this can be done by only the best writers.

I moved on to his Coming Through Slaughter, a fictionalised story of the life of the Jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, published in 1979. I loved this book when I first read it, but this time I got a bit impatient with it for some reason. I see now that it was rather a dress-rehearsal for The English Patient, with its structure that is like impro jazz, but it doesn’t have the depth and layers that The English Patient has.

It could be that my reading has matured as I age; or that writing fiction myself makes me very appreciative of the complexity of really good writing. Whatever, re-reading The English Patient was more than worthwhile — it has been a long time since I’ve read a book right through without putting it down.


I’m about to tackle Anthony Burgess’s Any Old Iron. I’ll let you know!