The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner - review by Chris Power

Chris Power

Toccata & Fugue

The Children’s Bach

By

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 176pp £9.99
 

After the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip, about the relationship between a single mother and a junky in bohemian 1970s Melbourne, Helen Garner tried to write the same book again. ‘My publishers said it was shit’, she told an interviewer a couple of years ago, ‘and they were absolutely right, so I threw away all the really crappy bits and broke it into two stories. But,’ she continued, ‘by the time I published The Children’s Bach, four years later, I had somehow learned to write.’ 

Not just write but create something that is now considered one of the most significant Australian novels of the last fifty years. The Children’s Bach, first published in 1984 and long out of print in the UK, describes the fracture and complicated restoration of a shabby-genteel family, the Foxes, in early 1980s Melbourne. It is a short book that feels as if it has been boiled down from a much larger one until only the most essential elements remain. It combines omniscience with dirty-realist minimalism – a unique tenor lying somewhere between the styles of George Eliot and Raymond Carver – darting from one short episode to the next without exposition or anything but the most efficient kind of scene-setting. Here, in one of the lengthier examples, Garner describes the kitchen belonging to the novel’s central family:

Because it had only one source of light, a yellow-shaded standard lamp at head-height against a wall, the Fox family’s kitchen was like a burrow, rounded rather than cubed, as if its corners had been stuffed with dry grass. The air shimmered with warmth. The table, large, wooden, scarred,

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