Authors: Helen Garner

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017


November 7, 1942

Geelong, Victoria, Australia


Helen Garner is generally regarded as one of the leading Australian writers of her generation. She was born Helen Ford in the seaside city of Geelong, fifty miles south of Melbourne, and grew up in the state of Victoria, graduating from the University of Melbourne in 1965. She taught in public high schools in Victoria until 1972, when she was dismissed, ostensibly for using obscene language in the classroom. She married William Garner in 1968; they had one daughter. She later divorced Garner and in 1980 married Jean-Jacques Portail. After some years spent in the Melbourne area as a freelance writer, Garner produced her first work of fiction, Monkey Grip, in which she chronicles the lives of the survivors of the counterculture of the 1960s who had congregated in the trendy Melbourne neighborhood of Carlton. Reviewers lauded Garner for putting a new lifestyle on the literary map. Garner’s tale of the curious relationship between a thirtyish woman and a drug dealer celebrates the randomness and anarchy of Carlton manners and mores at the same time that it warns against the dark, destructive underside of too much personal liberation and excess.

Somewhat in the manner of American minimalist writers such as Ann Beattie, Garner’s fiction struck a chord among readers for its honest treatment of ordinary life and relations between people, especially men and women. Garner’s style, though, was not in the least minimalist but rather involved and multilayered. After publishing “Honour,” and “Other People’s Children,” two novellas, Garner’s next serious literary effort was The Children’s Bach. By this time, the kind of characters about whom Garner wrote had entered the 1980s and early middle age and were as concerned with family as they had previously been with cultural experimentation. The Children’s Bach chronicles this generational evolution, but it also focuses on the craft of music and, inferentially, on the art of fiction itself.

Garner became a familiar figure on the Australian literary scene and was much in demand in print and over-the-air media as well as on the lecture circuit. She was of interest to Australians not only as a writer but also as a feminist and a figure in the women’s movement, and she was especially active in the cultural affairs of her native Victoria. Her writing continued to evolve, however, as is seen in Postcards from Surfers, Garner’s most formally innovative work, in which many short stories are strung together in a kind of “discontinuous narrative.” Many reviewers saw features here recalling international literary movements such as minimalism and postmodernism. Others also noted Garner’s continuing emphasis on family life, personal growth, and her sociological interest in the beach culture of the state of Queensland.

After this Garner did not publish any fiction for more than five years; some critics speculated that her inspiration had waned as her generation grew older. With Cosmo Cosmolino, however, Garner showed she was ready for the 1990s. The novel continued Garner’s portrayal of the sociological and cultural patterns of her times, but many critics saw something more abstract and universal in this novel.

Throughout her career Garner continued to write journalism, writing a history of the Melbourne theater company La Mama and also commenting on a wide range of cultural issues. This aspect of Garner’s writing generated huge controversy in Australian literary circles with the 1995 publication of The First Stone, a nonfiction narrative of a sexual harassment case involving the master of a residential college at the University of Melbourne, Garner’s own alma mater. Garner changed the names of the persons involved, but she chronicled the facts of a real case. Garner argues that the sexual harassment charges against the professor were either trumped up or overexaggerated, and she concludes that feminist vigilance against sexual harassment has gone too far and should be moderated. This led to an outcry from Australian feminists, who accused Garner of squandering the gains made by the women’s movement in the previous twenty-five years. The First Stone catapulted Garner’s name into the status of a household word in Australia and ensured that her fictional works, too, reached a wider reading public.

Garner published Joe Cinque's Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law in 2004, which brought significant attention to the true crime story of Joe Cinque, who was killed by his girlfriend, Anu Singh. After drugging him, she intentionally gave him a lethal dose of heroin. In her book, Garner describes attending one of Singh's trials. In 2008, she published her first novel in over a decade. The Spare Room tells the story of a woman who takes in her friend, who is dying from cancer. The narrator becomes a caretaker for her friend and must also reconcile with her friend's attempts to find a cure through alternative medicine. Returning to nonfiction, Garner published This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial in 2014, once again using her skills to provide a well-recieved account of a real-life murder trial involving an Australian man accused of drowning his children. In 2016, she was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize for nonfiction for her work.

Author Works Long Fiction: Monkey Grip, 1977 “Honour” and “Other People’s Children,” 1980 (novellas) The Children’s Bach, 1984 Cosmo Cosmolino, 1992 Short Fiction: Postcards from Surfers, 1985 My Hard Heart, 1998 The Spare Room, 2008 Screenplays: Two Friends, 1986 The Last Days of Chez Nous, 1992 Nonfiction: La Mama: Story of a Theatre, 1988 The First Stone: Some Questions About Sex and Power, 1995 True Stories: Selected Nonfiction, 1996 The Feel of Steel, 2001 Joe Cinque's Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law, 2004 This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial, 2014 Everywhere I Look, 2016 Bibliography Ashcroft, W. D. “The Language of Music: Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach.” Australian Literary Studies 14 (October, 1990). Examines the gender-related linking of power, language, and music in Garner’s novel. Brophy, Kevin. “Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip: The Construction of an Author and Her Work.” Australian Literary Studies 15 (October, 1992). Discusses the early stages of Garner’s career. Clower, John. “The Anarchistic Craft of The Children’s Bach.” Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 3 (Fall, 1991). Discusses that novel as representing a pivotal place in Garner’s career. Colebrook, Claire. “Sensual Angels and Exteriority: Helen Garner’s Cosmo Cosmolino.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29, no. 1 (1994). A close analysis of Garner’s novel, focusing on the imagery of the angel. Coslovich, Gabriella. "Playing against Type: Approaches to Genre in the Work of Helen Garner and Kate Jennings." Hecate, vol. 41, no. 1/2, 2015, pp. 139–55. Analyzes the authors' melding of fiction and nonfiction in a selection of their work. Curthoys, Jean. “Do Men and Women Live in the Same World?” Quadrant 42 (April, 1998). Discusses The First Stone in a review of academic feminism. Mansfield, Nicholas. “A Pleasant, Meaningless Discord: Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach.” Westerly 36 (June, 1991). Discusses that novel as representing a pivotal place in Garner’s career. Wertheim, Albert. “Garner Takes on Controversy.” Antipodes 9 (December, 1995). A discussion of The First Stone sympathetic to the author’s point of view. Wilele, William H., et al., eds. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Has a lengthy essay on Garner’s career and work.

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