Helen Garner, The Children’s Bach (©1984, Penguin Australia 1999)
Having read Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup because it was on Kerryn Goldsworthy’s What’s What List and been sharply impressed, I decided to follow it up with this, which is also on that list. I am in awe of Helen Garner’s non-fiction, a category which for my present purposes includes the novel The Spare Room, but I’ve read very little of her fiction. Monkey Grip, her first novel, read to me like an elegantly processed diary: it was interesting and impressive, but didn’t entice me to read more. So reading The Children’s Bach involved reversing an earlier virtual decision.
I’m not sure my life is much richer for the reversal. Admittedly life was offering some stiff competition for my attention as I read it, what with the wedding, settlement day on our new house and the imminence of Christmas, but the book failed to enthrall me. About two fifths of the way through I was having trouble keeping track of who was related to whom, so I drew a diagram and was astonished to realise there are only ten characters, of whom three are children, yet I had trouble telling them apart. Dexter is the man who shouts a lot, cheerfully. Vicki is the young woman who has come over from Perth to live with her sister and then moved in with Dexter and his family. Which of the more or less indistinguishable women is Dexter’s partner? Who is Poppy again? When they talk about the little guy with the tatts are they referring to the same man who tells his daughter a bedtime story about the Paradise Cafe? Surely the man who is taking Athena out walking isn’t the same man who came into her house the other night and had sex up against the fridge with young Vicki, with whom she is kind of in loco parentis? Luckily, I drew my little chart of relationships and got it all clear before the main events of the book, which involve extra-marital sex (though I’m not sure any of the characters is married, strictly speaking).
I probably missed a lot. For example, I wasn’t sure if the first of two main sex scenes was actually a sex scene until the dying fall of the last sentence, just before one of the characters said something about having to make some phone calls. But even for as undiscerning a reader as I was, the book delivers a moral jolt. Each of the four characters involved in the sex scenes has a completely different take on what the action means: assumptions are challenged, values questioned, tensions left unresolved. There’s no tragedy, no high romantic drama, no ultimate judgement – just people making their way with each other. And beyond that, I think, a documentary impulse in the writing: it aims to tell us about the lives of a certain group of people – perhaps the ‘friends’ the book is dedicated to –