Michelle at Adventures in Biography is such an enthusiastic advocate for the writing of Helen Garner that I could not help but add The Feel of Steel to the already considerable pile of books I had picked up at a recent UWA/Save the Children book sale. But at an average price of $2.50 I was doing ok, and now I’ve read it I realise I was doing very well indeed.
Garner is a little bit older than I expected, born in 1942 in Geelong, Vic, brought up, as she tells us, in Geelong and nearby Ocean Grove, and put on the path to privilege via exclusive girls’ school The Hermitage and Janet Clarke Hall/Melbourne Uni. For me, she has always been the author of Monkey Grip (1977), a seminal, semi-autobiographical novel of druggy inner-Melbourne. But she has also become increasingly well-known for her investigative non-fiction, in particular The First Stone (1995) and This House of Grief (2014).
The Feel of Steel (2001) is a series of essays, 31 in all, culled from sources as various as The Age, Women’s Weekly and Best Australian Essays. The title refers to an ‘old French’ phrase, “le sentiment de fer”, used in the sport of fencing. I found this collection much easier to read than a book of short stories for one reason, not because it is well written, although it is, but because the stories have one unifying focus – Helen Garner and her life from the end of her third marriage in the mid 1990s.
In the first story she shocks me, writing, “What’s home supposed to be, anyway? Is it the flat in Sydney where I live now?” Garner lives in Sydney?! Who knew? She has always been as quintessentially Melbourne as … well, the Fitzroy Baths. To my relief, a few stories later she is on her way back down the Hume Highway, pausing at Albury to catch her breath, then home:
My first breath of night carried the scent of grasslands, the mighty Keilor plains that lie northwest of Melbourne. I grabbed hold of the garden tap, swung my head under it, and guzzled the warm water till it became cold, and kept on guzzling till my teeth hurt. (Melbourne’s Famous Water).
The stories cover a wide range of topics, but always with Helen at the centre, from a trip to the Antarctic ice, to dealing with the grief of marriage breakup, to engaging with her family, her parents, her sisters, her daughter, her grandchild. She muses on what makes a reader and a writer and muses on the guilty secret of book people everywhere:
I’ve been asking around: I knew I couldn’t be the only person capable of forgetting the contents of a novel only minutes after having closed it. I’ve found that people bluff when they talk about books. They pretend to remember things that they don’t remember at all. Intense anxiety and guilt cluster round the state of having read. Press the memory of a book, and it goes blurry. (Woman in a Green Mantle).
Garner it seems is a church goer, Anglican, regular enough that she is on the roster for reading the lesson, though I’m sure you’ll understand I skipped the chapter on bible reading. I did, however, bring myself to read the chapter on a diet involving constant enemas at ‘the Spa Resort on Koh Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand’:
And twice a day you collect your numbered bucket of fluid and retire to your private bathroom. You hang the bucket from a rusty wire hook in the ceiling over the toilet. You take off all your clothes (this can get messy). … [You fit your ‘personal colema tip’] … You hold your anal sphincter closed for as long as you can tolerate the steadily growing sensation of fullness … (A Spy in the House of Excrement)
As with a couple of other stories, this is both a diary of her experience and close observations of her fellows, writing at which Garner excels.
Over the course of the book her elderly parents leave the family home and take an apartment in the city – Garner is shocked at her father’s lack of attachment to things and places – and her mother is admitted to a nursing home with dementia:
I am ashamed to recall how harshly we witnessed the years of her decline. When she told the same anecdote over and over, in exactly the same words and with the same intonation, we would roll our eyes at each other behind her back, or joke about it on the phone afterwards. (Our Mother’s Flood 1)
Inevitably in a book about Melbourne, Garner gets caught up in the footy – going to see Western Bulldogs players in a ‘Male Revue’ at the casino (including, as it happens, the father of one of the stars of the Bulldogs’ recent historic premiership), and later at a game, and watching her nephew play on a wet Saturday in the outer suburbs. Over the course of two stories she also takes up fencing and in the heat of her first veterans’ competition discovers the joy of competing:
And I won a medal. A bronze medal on a long blue ribbon. Typing this, I’ve still got it on…
We all, even the victorious hulk from the mountains, kissed each other and shook hands. It was a radiant companionship.
I’m different, since that day. My body feels taller, stronger, freer. At this late age I suddenly understand why people on winter Saturdays scramble and strain in mud. The devotion and patience of coaches, their severe heartening – all this is clear to me now. At last, at last, I get it. I yelled and sang with gratitude all the way home. (The Feel of Steel 2).
In the final story she spends some time in the backroom of a friend’s made-to-measure bridal wear shop, observing and occasionally participating in, fittings. Loving the rush as it all comes together. Helen’s never been married in a ‘big’ dress. There’s no mention of a number 4, but hey, there’s still time.
Helen Garner, The Feel of Steel, Picador, Sydney, 2001
Helen Garner has plenty of fans among the Australian blogs I follow, so for more reading, Resident Judge (here) and Whispering Gums (here) have multiple posts. Michelle (here) and Kate W (here) review Garner’s This House of Grief (2014) and Lisa at ANZLL has posts (here) on the recent WA Premier’s Awards, including Garner’s success with This House of Grief and (here) for The Spare Room (2008).