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Book review: Helen Garner, Monkey Grip

Monkey Grip is Garner’s debut and is set in the period in which it was written, in mid-1970s Melbourne. I found it fascinating for that reason, as an insight into a young woman’s experience in that era, torn between feminist ideology and romantic love. It is moving, laconic, still fresh 45 years later, telling the story of a love affair between a single mother and a heroin addict. Despite mixed critical reception, it went on to win the National Book Council Award in 1978, coming to be recognized as ‘the voice of a generation,’ at a time when ‘serious’ Australian literature was almost exclusively male. In 2018, Monkey Grip was selected by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as number 47 of a list of “100 stories that shaped the world”—the only Australian novel on the list.

A real empath wrote this book. The crystal clear memory, and the nature of that attention, tell the story of one of the classic personality types that are often among the arts. It was written in 77. Despite becoming a rocker meme in 82, it also is interesting for capturing pre-tech western life. The pacing, the dropping by and comings and goings, the phone as an extension of place, not the person. Many adults today do not have a memory of that way. People who live by feeling this way are often misread, but her tolerance is a dialectic that favours love, and she affected me by literally wearing the shoes of others. Recommended because the I Ching was used to writing it, which turned out to be key to a brilliant moment in the author’s lucidity

Having just finished Monkey Grip, I am feeling suitably provincial. Garner’s 1970’s story is utterly urban and incredibly hipster – it would break the hearts of modern loose fringed copycats. People ride their bikes around from one inner-city Melbourne share house to another, swapping beds, children and needles, and rarely seem to go to work. There is no internet. You go to a bank to collect your dole money. The writing is rich and sensual, and the supporting characters are rain, sun, wind, heat, the feel of a dark backyard and that moment of falling into bed, exhausted and drunk. Drugs are central to everyone’s lives, whether they use them or not. Everyone hates the drugs, the users and the fallout, but no one will say so. The book’s rhythm is uncertain and moves with frequent ebb and flow, disaster and requiem, rather than the requisite “minor climax times two, followed d by a prolonged pause then major climax”. It’s like flipping between ABC and SBS late at night rather than watching a James Cameron film. People change their hair. Junkies steal things from their non-junkie lovers.

Garner does not introduce characters; they walk into the room, and she continues talking as if we’ve already met. They have names like Georgie, Paddy, Chris and Joss, and she often leaves their gender hanging for some time. Often you aren’t sure if they are children or adults. Edgy, perhaps, but for me, it’s a bit presumptuous. It means they don’t make an impression, and I have nothing to which to refer when they re-enter later. It also means I don’t care too much about them.

Nothing seems to work; no one ever quite gets there. Happiness found is always pending further grief. Best laid plans always fail, but poetically so and occasionally, someone learns something. If you can forgive and tolerate and be patient and not expect too much, it’s gratifying, which is the theme of the story, really.

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