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  1. NB: Although this volume was published in 2017, the stories contained in it were first published in the 20th Century in different collections. Hence the categorisation of this topic in BGO. Stories is the short companion volume to the much longer True Stories, the compendium of Helen Garner's short non-fiction work.Unsurprisingly, then, Stories are the short fiction. Except that Helen Garner's work is notoriously hard to categorise. These are not really stories, they are essays written from the point of view of someone who just happens not to exist. The quality is apparent in that you have to keep reminding yourself that it is not memoir or editorial. And it is not the life of Helen Garner portrayed by actors, in that the characters are so completely different: flighty women, abused women, strong women, a gay man, a nationalist drunk, ... Always Australian, though. Mostly the stories don't have what you'd think of as a narrative arc. They start with no preamble and the reader is required to piece together what it is they are reading, And the ends tend to just peter out rather than reaching any real resolution. So this is not an easy read. Nor is it what would traditionally be called entertaining. It's not even that thought provoking. But there is a beauty in it when looked at closely, in just how perfectly some moments and some details are captured. Invariably uncomfortable moments. ****0
  2. This House of Grief is a devastating book that defies categorisation. On Father’s Day 2005, Robert Farquharson spent the afternoon with his three boys, Jai (aged 10), Tyler (aged 7) and Bailey (aged 2). It was the first Father’s Day since his wife, Cindy Gambino, had left him. Taking the boys back to Cindy’s house – the former family home in Winchelsea, Victoria – the car left the road and ended deep underwater in a dam. Farquharson survived; Jai, Tyler and Bailey did not. Like many people who saw the news on TV, local writer Helen Garner was shocked by the story; initially there was sympathy for the family, but then a suggestion emerged that Farquharson might have driven into the dam intentionally. Garner resolved to attend the subsequent murder trial and this book is the result. Unlike typical true crime books, Garner focuses only on the trial. Events from that fateful day are reported only insofar as they emerged during news reports and the trial. The story remains faithful to the sequencing of witnesses; contradictory stories are presented; there are chance encounters with lawyers and family in the corridors of the Supreme Court or outside at the coffee cart. But there is no additional investigation; although the odd contemporaneous newspaper article of TV report might be mentioned, there is no attempt to gather information that did not come immediately to hand. This is, as the cover says, the story of a trial. This House of Grief is emotionally draining. Helen Garner pulls no punches in presenting the details of the boys’ last afternoon; the car’s journey; the speculation about the way the boys drowned; the grief of the family. The reader sees points of the narrative where a different outcome might have been possible and wills it to be so, even though the reader knows it cannot be. Readers who are used to death on a grand scale in detective fiction; and dispassionate reporting of deaths in the newspapers will find this real life tragedy harrowing. Garner gets the balance between fact and feeling spot on; her description is perfect and her focus on people as much as deeds lifts this book from its peers. Garner does not use flowery language or long words – but just has an unerring knack of using the right words, succinctly and to the best effect. She transitions with ease from detailed argument to personal conversations with her companion Louise and her old barrister friend; to her thoughts at home in the evening. Readers who know young boys are going to struggle with parts of this. Whilst the book does set out technical and legal argument, it does so lightly, focusing as much on the impression left by the evidence as on the evidence itself. The book concentrates on emotions and feelings. Whilst most Australians will know of the case and know the outcome, Helen Garner does not presume and her narrative does not lead the reader to an inevitable outcome of guilt or innocence. At the end, when the verdict is read out, it comes across as an unsatisfactorily definitive resolution to a situation that will always be unsatisfactory. At the heart of the dissatisfaction, though, is the grief that the three boys are dead and will stay dead. Whatever happens in the trial, three young lives have ended and the lives of their parents have been rendered meaningless. There is no recovery from this; determining whether it was deliberate or accidental will have some bearing on Farquharson’s comfort but won’t actually solve very much one way or the other. The legal system and legal practitioners do not come across well. Barristers are seen to harry witnesses in an attempt to knock them off course; grieving family members are ripped to shreds when imprecisions in their phrasing leaves little loopholes; and experts are reduced to mumbling idiots as the barristers pick through the theory with shocking selectivity. It is a brutal process that relies on scoring points rather than discovering the truth. There are suggestions that even Farquharson himself might not know the truth; that the truth and genuine recollections can shift over time and are, to an extent, malleable to fit in with a greater narrative. The quest for truth is therefore a fool’s errand. Throughout the book there is a sense that through news reports and through the trial, the story has become public property. What starts as discomfort at intruding on the personal tragedy of those involved grows gradually into a sense of offence against public sensibilities. Small children should not die. As Garner says in her closing remarks: “Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken. The children’s fate is our legitimate concern. They are ours to mourn. They belong to all of us now.” This is compelling reading; even though it can be hard to keep going, it is harder still to look away. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. *****
  3. This book is a novella. Helen invites her old friend, Nicola, to stay for three weeks. In their youth they were free spirit hippie types. Nicola is now seriously ill with cancer. In an unponderous and unsentimental way Helen Garner looks at friendship. While Helen can shoulder lightly and without resentment the day to day physical tasks involved in looking after her friend - the ceaseless changing of bed linen or the chauffeuring back and forth to doctors and hospitals, it is more demanding to cope with Nicola’s faith in various alternative ‘therapies’ from shysters or the ever-present fixed glittering smile. This is not as you might think a depressing book. It’s the prose style that lifts it. It’s so light in touch, well crafted but without drawing attention to itself. I see that the publishers are disappointed it didn’t make the short list for the Booker: the reviews were excellent. I think the selectors were wary with it being a novella - as with On Chesil Beach? A good but perhaps not outstanding book. E.T.A.:Helen Garner paid tribute to Elmore Leonard's essay, 'Ten Rules of Writing': she has his sentence, 'If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,' on the wall above her desk.
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