Cosmo Cosmolino, Helen Garner

On Melbourne summer mornings the green trams go rolling in stately progress down tunnels thick with leaves: the bright air carries along the avenues their patient chime, the chattering of their wheels.

I might stop my review right there. How Melbourne is Helen Garner!

I should have stopped there. The much praised Cosmo Cosmolino, as far as I was concerned, was almost completely incomprehensible. Not the individual words and sentences, not of course Garner’s always perceptive accounts of Melbourne inner suburban share-house life, but where the hell was she going with it.

My Text edition (not the one pictured – the Text edition has a boring black cover with a few stars) has an Introduction by Melbourne biologist and radio presenter Ramona Koval, which I didn’t read, two short stories – Recording Angel (25pp) and A Vigil (27pp) – and then Cosmo Cosmolino (217pp).

Recording Angel

The narrator is unnamed. Let’s call her Helen. Helen’s friend Patrick lives in Sydney with his wife and son. On a visit Patrick tells Helen he has brain cancer. Helen is devastated.

.. Patrick recited my life like a poem he had learnt by heart; and over the years of our friendship I had come to endure his version without open rebellion ..

They discuss Helen’s friend Ursula who Patrick had filed under ‘Became an Alcoholic and a Prostitute’ and who threw herself under a tram after the death of her daughter. A visit or two later and Helen is at Patrick’s to support Natalie while Patrick undergoes an operation. The night before, they talk and talk. After Patrick comes out of the operation the two women gape “with shock and fear at the foot of the bed” then rush out of the hospital.

A Vigil

Kim was hanging on by a thread, taking pills, waiting endless months for her father to come down from Queensland, pay her uni fees, take her away. Raymond, living with her, or in the same house anyway, uses her

The nightdress was twisted up round her waist and her skin was loose, like old sacking. She had about as much life in her as a half-deflated dummy, but without complaint she opened her legs, and he kept his face turned away, to avoid her breath.

Raymond stays away for four days, at his brother’s in a rooming house in another part of the city. When he comes back he passes Kim’s mother in the street, a man tagging along. Ursula. Kim is dead. He finds her, still in bed, her face flyblown, and rushes back to his brother’s, where Ursula finds him a few days later to drag him to the funeral. And then to be punished.

Cosmo Cosmolino

Janet has an old two storey terrace house that used to be a vibrant share-house. Those years are long gone. She’s been married. The stain is still on the wall from the saucepan of beetroot soup she flung at him as she told him to get out. Now she works from home with a battered typewriter, making a living knocking out short pieces for magazines, the decaying house an albatross around her neck. Over the years she had ..

retreated before chaos, closing doors as she went, leaving timber half-stripped and plaster unpainted, until only in the kitchen was any kind of order maintained.

Maxine “lived in a shed and called herself a carpenter”. For money she did cleaning, ironing, mowing. But the property she lives on is sold, and she is homeless. She ends up at Janet’s, in the shed at the end of the garden.

And there’s a guy, Ray, who is taken in the same day, down from the North where his brother, Alby, has fed him stories of communal living, half naked women, food always on the table in vast quantities. He takes Alby’s old room, upstairs at the back. Is disappointed to discover they buy their food separately, and eat at different times, hurriedly, “in a kitchen corner, or bowed over a newspaper at the white table”.

So far, so Helen Garner. But the story develops a fanastical element. Where did that come from?

Something tells Maxine that she will have a baby. Fathered by Ray.

Janet swallowed. ‘And – Ray does know about this, I suppose?’
‘Perhaps not with his conscious mind, yet,’ said Maxine. ‘That depends on the number of his incarnations.’
‘Sorry?’ said Janet.
‘Oh, everybody,’ said Maxine, ‘at some stage has to do a spell on earth.’…
‘I know it sounds strange at first’ … ‘See – angelic beings aren’t necessarily aware of their status.’

Ray, on the other hand (being a Queenslander) “knows Jesus”. Sure, Garner is making fun of them, but somewhere along the line she buys into it.

Life goes on. Maxine makes a ‘bride’ out of straw and Ray’s best shirt (a doll with magic powers) which assumes an importance I don’t understand. Ray somehow gets a job, saves money, hides a grand at the bottom of his dirty clothes basket. Maxine gets involved with a pyramid scheme for getting rich. ‘Borrows’ Ray’s grand and blows it on the scheme. Alby arrives with a truckload of worthless second-hand furniture. Maxine floats away in a cloud of jonquils.

If an author, as Garner has done here, declares a collection of pieces to be a novel, then that is how I will read it. But these pieces don’t speak to each other at all. If this is a novel, then as far as I am concerned, it is a failed novel.


Helen Garner, Cosmo Cosmolino, first pub. 1992. My edition Text, Melbourne, 2012. 283pp.

37 thoughts on “Cosmo Cosmolino, Helen Garner

  1. Lol. I almost bought this in Elizabeth’s on the weekend and then put it back because it sounded too much like Monkey Grip, which I hated! I much prefer her essays, diaries & non-fiction than her fiction.


  2. Hi Bill, I have written about this book. It’s a challenging one, in my reading of it Janet in the third story is the unnamed narrator in the first story (“Recording angel”) and Raymond in the second story (“Vigil”) is Ray in the third story. If you read the characters this way, and I think we are meant too, then the novel comes together more coherently, though it is still quite different to any there work of hers that I’ve read.

    Also, Helen Garner does have some religious leanings if I remember correctly. This novel seems to be the one that most addresses those leanings. (I should go look up the biography, but I’m too lazy right now.)


    • Ah yes, I think religion comes up in The Feel of Steel. I’d forgotten.

      I didn’t think to connect Ray and Raymond, even though I was looking for connections! I did think about Janet and ‘the narrator’ and I thought the latter was more purposeful. If we accept your reading, and why not, then the stories are in reverse chronological order: –
      Ursula is dead
      Ursula punishes Ray
      Raymond comes to Melbourne


      • Oh, I’d have to reread the novel to confirm all that. I don’t think I saw it that way. I’m just looking at Brennan’s bio of Garner. She quotes Garner as saying that in it she threw off her “tight-arsed perfectionism”. The book says Cosmo Cosmolino contains three Interlinked stones , all concerning transformation. Says the book mirrors the structure of a Christan pilgrimage, but also says it can be a meditation on past, present and future. There’s really Interesting commentary about this book in the bio, actually. Tim Winton saw the original ”A vigil” and thought it too gruesome and unclear. Brennan agrees that Janet is the first story’s narrator, the book, not surprisingly, flummoxed critics some who didn’t like her “move into religion and fantasy”. Winton loves it. Garner hoped readers would look beyond a simple realist approach. I think I should re-read it.


      • That’s great Sue that you’ve done all that research. I’ve never been a Christian pilgrim so that’s probably why I missed those connections. I started reading Tim Winton’s memoir a few years ago and had to give up when he started talking about finding god in the waves, which is a clue to his own repetitiveness and might explain why he was happy for Garner to head down the same path.


  3. Of her fiction work, I only every liked Monkey Grip – and I’m aware there’s a debate about whether this is truly fiction. I do enjoy Garner’s non-fiction. I think I read the comment somewhere that Garner’s main interest in her books is herself and I’d say that’s pretty true. Thanks for reminding me why I didn’t like Cosmo Cosmolino Bill!


    • Hooray, someone who like Monkey Grip. Garner, like many writers, writes mostly about herself. I don’t think that’s a bad thing – she is a very good writer and what she writes is interesting. Gerald Murnane is another, though maybe he writes about what he is thinking and Garner writes about what she is doing.


  4. I’m a Garner fan but Cosmo Cosmolino flummoxed me too. Her recently published diaries cover the period when she was writing it but I’m not sure they give much more insight. Garner is quite religious, I think, and Cosmo is the beginnings of her explorations of that aspect of herself. Telling, perhaps, that she hasn’t revisited those themes in subsequent books – although I guess you could read her crime books as being about an exploration of darkness and evil? But truly, I dunno!!


    • I’m a fan of Garner’s writing and of her drilling deep down into herself and her relationships, but I really don’t want to know about her religion, I thought she was just mucking around here with a bit of magic realism.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The thing that flummoxes me often is when readers have this kind of reaction to a work, but it gets rave reviews? I mean, “the most significant work of fiction to be published in Australia in thirty years” is rather bold. What could they possibly be seeing that we don’t see?


    • Thanks for stopping by to comment (and the world could do with more vegos). I saw that claim too. What about Benang and Carpentaria? Not to mention The Swan Book which came out a year later and which I believe will be the book of the century. “Critics” and I agree about very little.


      • Thanks, nice to be here! Yes I’m halfway through The Swan Book right now and while parts of it are a little out of my reach at this point, it’s stunning. I agree. I think I still have to get past the thoughts that my reading of a work is wrong if it doesn’t match the critic’s!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Linked story collections are probably my favourite kind of short story collection and you know that I’ve developed a real fondness for the form. So your concluding thoughts here really intrigue me. Sometimes I feel like publishers make the decision for marketing reasons but that sounds like something other than what’s happening here. WG’s comments remind me of a collection of stories that did play out that way, with POVs uniting previous stories but without identifying the narrator by name as having appeared in the previous story. For me, that kind of playing makes a collection MORE interesting, but I can also see why not everybody wants to play detective with a collection of stories. I’ve only read one, maybe two, of Garner’s myself, not this one.


    • The best known Australian linked collection is probably Tim Winton’s The Turning. Lots of people deny that it is a novel, and I forget what Winton says, but for me the stories speak to each other in all sorts of ways. In fact, I regard it as Winton’s most successful novel because he often has a problem with endings which this format avoids.
      I really enjoy Garner’s writing and the surgical precision with which she dissects herself and her friends, and I appreciate older writing with its discussions of Christian morality, not that I’m a subscriber, but Garner loses me here when she goes off with the fairies in the third, main story.


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