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Book Review: Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

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Everywhere I Look

Helen Garner

Reviewer: Julie Szego

This collection of Garner’s non-fiction dating back decades delivers a fresh perspective on a voice that’s redefined the genre in Australia — Everywhere I Look reminded me how truly radical and bold Garner’s writing is. Again and again I contemplated her unflinching self-knowledge; in laying bare her vulnerability she both fosters intimacy with the reader and earns licence to render others in the sharpest relief.

She insists that the everyday — conversations with strangers, sorting furniture in a new house, lazy afternoons with her grandson — is a legitimate subject for literary inquiry. Other pieces, such as her affection for the ukulele, are layered, almost metaphorical. That essay begins: “When I was in my forties I went on holiday to Vanuatu with a kind and very musical man to whom I would not much longer be married, though I didn’t know it yet.” One sentence, one comma, a narrative arc and the seeding of the theme, musicality. A virtuoso performance.

Her journalistic features are invariable riveting — an account of the trial of a teenage girl for infanticide stunning in its nuance. The quality of the writing never varies: Garner’s chiseled sentences so fluid they feel organic, and for this we can largely thank Mrs Dunkley, Garner’s dour and alcoholic high school grammar teacher, also memorialised in the collection.

But the film reviews should not have been included; movies generally date fast. And the essays about Tim Winton and Raimond Gaita have a clubby quality because they assume the reader is familiar with each writer’s work. By contrast, a profile of an ailing Elizabeth Jolley poignantly weaves references to Jolley’s “leitmotifs that resound like quietly struck chords.”

A feature on a ballet company preparing for a production describes a regular morning practice where dancers leap across the studio. “They manifest the tremendous onwardrushingness of life,” Garner writes, “full of a joy that transcends words.” It is a cheeky Garner affectation because almost nothing transcends her words; when stuck for one, she’d sooner make one up than settle for near enough. Hence “onwardrushingness,” and it lands a perfect bullseye.

Reviewed by: Ms Julie Szego, Lawyer, Journalist and Author

Julie Szego worked as a lawyer before switching to journalism. She worked for 12 years at The Age as a social affairs reporter, senior writer, leader writer and columnist. Now a freelance journalist, she writes a fortnightly column for The Age, contributes to various journals and magazines, and teaches creative non-fiction at Melbourne University. Her first non-fiction book, The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, was shortlisted for both the Victorian and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for 2015.

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