Monkey Grip, Helen Garner

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Monkey Grip (1977) is famously Helen Garner’s first novel. It comes mid-generation, marking a clear point of no return, a clean break with with Australian writing’s past. If any one novel represents AWW Gen 4, then this is it.

When I first read Monkey Grip I saw it in the tradition of the Beats – Kerouac, Burroughs, and as I read more widely and time passed, of Kathy Acker and Irvine Welsh, leading on to Australia’s brief Grunge movement in the 1990s – Ettler, Tsiolkas, McGahan. With this re-reading, I don’t resile from those connections, but I’ve also read a lot more Garner. This is more than just living poor and taking drugs, this is Garner’s deep connection to co-operative living, to co-operation between women, to caring for others, and of course to autofiction.

The book it now reminds me of most closely is her fictionalised account of her friend’s treatment for late-stage cancer, The Spare Room (2008).

In December 1972 Garner, who was then 30, was fired from her job as a teacher for talking dirty to her 11-13 year old pupils: ” …the words some people think of as dirty words are the best words, the right words to use when you are talking about sex. So I’m not going to say “sexual intercourse”, I’m going to say “fuck” and I’m going to say “cock” and “cunt” too, so we’d better get that straight. Is that OK?”

Joseph Steinberg writes in an ALS article that “the terms of Garner’s firing inform the countercultural realism of her first novel Monkey Grip (1977), which is unabashedly fluent in, and indeed narratively yearns for, various forms of the four-letter contraband that got her sacked in the first place.” He quotes Kerryn Goldsworthy: “[male] reviewers were made uneasy ‘by frank, serious, knowledgeable utterances about sexuality made by a woman’ in Garner’s early novels and sought ‘to query her status as a literary author: in a word, to sack her’ (again)”.

In Monkey Grip, Nora – who stands in for Garner – is a single mother, with a five year old daughter, Gracie, living in share houses, old workers’ cottages in nineteenth century terraces around the CBD and Melbourne University (both presences which are felt but hardly ever mentioned); if I’ve got it right, first in Fitzroy, then near the Victoria Markets, and then back in Fitzroy.

It was early summer.
And everything, as it always does, began to heave and change.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t already have somebody to love. There was Martin, teetering as many were that summer on the dizzy edge of smack… But he went up north for a fortnight and idly, at the turning of the year, I fell in love with our friend Javo, the bludger, just back from getting off dope in Hobart.

Or as Steinberg summarises: “Nora needs to fuck Javo, Javo needs dope; Nora needs Javo not to need dope, but Javo needs it to need Nora, and Nora needs to be needed by Javo, ‘must learn not to need him’ though he needs her, for when it is her turn to need him he will ‘he will have nothing to give’. ‘Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference?’, muses Nora midway through the novel.”

Gracie is an odd presence throughout, bored witless in her first year at school, already able to read, and at home, a Jiminy Cricket, seeing everything, an independent spirit with her own opinions, her own life.

One of the most interesting things about the story telling is the complete absence of back story for any of the characters. You get to know them as they appear on the page, entirely without explanation. Anything that’s not relevant at that moment, you don’t hear about.

Kevin Brophy in another ALS essay writes about Monkey Grip‘s reception over time. Especially early on, male reviewers were unhappy with Garner’s focus on women’s issues; Garner was an author who ‘talks dirty and passes it off as realism’; male and female reviewers, as was always the case with works by women, shrugged it off as a love story; almost no attention was paid to the innovation in both writing and subject matter. Brophy suggests an alternative reading, one which was resisted by nearly every reviewer:

The text proposes that people can throw conventions aside and reinvent themselves and their social relations in a process of change that is self-imposed, liminal, unpredictable and spontaneous. These new possibilities involve the reader in a world where communal living and single parenting can be the norm, where children are relatively independent and have insights to offer on the behaviour of the adults around them, a world where women insist on meeting men as equals. It is a world where a woman can speak and write of sex explicitly, dispassionately, even ‘tastelessly’ in a literary work — an accomplishment long granted to male literary figures. In these and other ways Monkey Grip invites readers to recognise and reassess the conventions by which they take their ‘realist’ fiction and by which they live.

Today, forty something years later, Garner’s autofiction is still controversial. In 1977 it was just plain un-literary.

I haven’t made it clear, but we make our way through a year and a bit of inner Melbourne life; hot summer days at the Fitzroy baths; cycling through Carlton and Fitzroy’s achingly familiar plane tree lined streets; in and out of each others’ share houses; in and out of beds in all the painful permutations of ‘open’ relationships; struggling to a resolution.

One last quote from Brophy:

[T]here is a further, more socially fundamental and political perspective on addiction offered in the novel. The patriarchal value system— the ideology that socialises us from childhood—is here presented as the overwhelming addiction suffered by characters who are wanting to reinvent value systems for social relations.

Garner is a revolutionary, remaking the way we think about living, about bringing up children, about relationships; remaking the way we think about Literature. If you haven’t read Monkey Grip yet, do yourself a favour.


Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, Penguin/McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1977. 245pp.

Joseph Steinberg, Helen Garner’s Education, Australian Literary Studies, 28 Oct 2021
Kevin Brophy, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, The Construction of an Author and her Work, Australian Literary Studies, 1 Oct 1992

Lisa/ANZLitLovers is first off the block for AWW Gen 4 Week with a review of Amy Witting’s, The Visit (here) and Sue/Whispering Gums has promised to be on topic in tomorrow’s Monday Musings, and now (Sunday afternoon) I see she’s reviewed a Janet Turner Hospital short story (here) as well.

Re my North America Project 2022, I’m sorry but it’s weeks since I’ve been in the truck so I have not made a start on Their Eyes Were Watching God audiobook. As I have Octavia Butler’s Kindred on my shelves, I am reading that and will put up a review on 31 Jan. Next month is still The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and March is Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (BIP, I know you suggested Salt Roads, thank you, but I decided to go with MR because it is earlier.) I’ll advise other months, including Their Eyes, when I get more organized.

37 thoughts on “Monkey Grip, Helen Garner

  1. I didn’t get on with this book when I read it several years ago. I chose it for my book group where it was universally disliked! At the time I didn’t appreciate the social / literary context of it… so I wonder if that might have changed my feeling toward it. I remember being frustrated by the characters and Nora’s inability to see that she was wasting her time with Javo and deserved better.


    • Nora is definitely wasting her time. I think what gets me first is just the whole atmosphere of 1970s inner Melbourne. I was there though in a different scene (I never even went to La Mama to my great regret), and of course younger, but still it all feels very familiar.
      Then I think I sympathize with Nora as she navigates her various relationships, none of them very well, not even mother-daughter probably, but all with the greatest honesty. I guess her mistakes feel to me like the sort of mistakes I might make.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Now, here’s me … I find it hard to understand why people don’t like books because they get frustrated with/don’t like characters? I reckon novels are the perfect place to learn about people like this, people who make – to us – poor decisions. I feel it helps us understand them when we meet the real ones in our lives?

      Of course I love Garner – though for some strange reason I haven’t read her first.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m often more on Kim’s side of the fence. If I’m identifying with the protagonist and the protagonist does silly stuff, then I get embarrassed and consider DNFing. Getting needlessly jealous particularly winds me up for some reason. Here, as I said, I sympathize with Nora, it’s often very difficult (easy for everyone else!) to admit you’ve fallen for the wrong person.

        As I said somewhere in the text, this is superficially a druggie novel, but it is also very clearly in Garner’s long line of share house, women’s co-operation writing.


      • I’m with Kim. I tried reading Monkey Grip years ago and disliked the characters and their poor choices so much that I didn’t finish the book. Perhaps I was too young for the story at the time (I was in my late teens and had lived a very sheltered life). I will try it again sometime.
        I can appreciate a book without liking the characters, but I can’t think of a book that I love where I don’t feel at least kindly towards the characters.


      • Thanks Rose. I will have to read it. However, I will say that whenever this issue comes up I always think of Patrick Süsskind’s Perfume. It really is only about the protagonist and he’s not nice. Meursault in Camus’ L’étranger is not really likeable, either. But both books are unforgettable – to me anyhow.


      • I read the book a long time ago and the frustration I felt about the characters is the thing that remained with me, that’s all. My objective is to always write balanced and fair reviews, so I never criticise books on the basis of not liking characters. You don’t need to like a character to like a book, but I do think you need to empathise with them or at least try to understand where they are coming from. My problem with Monkey Grip was lack of plot/structure, tedious (to me) writing, an over reliance on dreams (I hate dreams in fiction because it’s a lazy device) and the absence of back story. It’s not a bad book, it just wasn’t one for me. I much prefer Garner’s non fiction / journalism.


      • Thanks kimbofo. I understand about dreams as a plot device for resolving issues, and since I don’t have a lot of vivid dreams I can find them boring if people go on about them. Interestingly, they feature a lot in her diaries, so clearly, dreams are really important to her. I guess it makes sense that they feature in Monkey Grip.

        I’ve read 3 of her 5 novels, and a short story collection, and like them a lot, but I agree that her nonfiction is memorable too. I’d read anything of hers.


      • I thought the poorest choices both Nora and Javo made were their attempts at an ‘open’ relationship I can see where it fitted with hippy philosophy, but even at the time, as a raw young man, I never thought it was going to work in practice, and I never thought it would work in this novel and it didn’t, it’s just sabotage. I don’t feel for or with the protagonists as I did in Normal People for instance, but I really enjoyed Garner working her way through the whole situation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • And yet, Garner? So, what to do … BTW do you think this is the response of people who don’t remember their dreams? I listen to Mr Gums’ in case I learn something – haha. Seriously though, he tells his in a minute or two, so it’s fine, but long-winded descriptions – no.


  2. Tegan Bennett Daylight in her book The Details has a superb essay on Monkey Grip. I’ve always loved the depictions of inner Melbourne at the time – this still ranks as one of my favourite Australian novels (yes I know the use of “novels” is fraught but I think it’s correct enough!

    One of the few books I can read again and again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • If a writer says this is a novel then that is how I read it. It’s not good enough to say ‘but she’s just transcribing her diaries’, that’s Garner’s business not theirs. I think the real problem (though not for me) is that in Melbourne/Australia’s small literary community many of her characters are instantly recognisable, so that the reviewers who know them can’t get the distance to view the writing as fiction.

      Inner Melbourne on a pushbike to the Vic markets is just so exactly right. Have you tried Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists? Rawson knows and loves her Melbourne too, and gets it just right.


  3. I haven’t tried the Rawson Bill, I’ll look it up now thank you! I re-read Monkey Grip because it brings back memories of times spent with my brother and mates in big old share houses in St Kilda back then – when we were all young and full of plans for our futures – so happy memories of youth past – with a tinge of nostalgia! It’s her description of Melbourne that Tegan Daylight loves to much too.

    I agree with you about the novel, just that I am aware of the controversy!


  4. I have had this book unread on my shelf for some time. I need to read it. I have only read her second book of diaries and really liked it. I have several of her books.. Too many books, not enough time. I enjoyed your telling.


    • Thankyou Pam. I’ve been in Hobart all afternoon, a bit gray after Perth, and cloud settling over the mountain – it’s a few years since I’ve seen that (ok, I had the cricket on tv). I hope you do read it. It’s such a Melbourne story that I’d be interested to know if you felt it told a ‘universal’ story as well.


  5. Javo is a drop kick snd I spent much of the book silently screaming at Nora to dump him. I loved the bits at the pool and although I don’t go to the Fitzroy Baths these days, I drive past frequently and always think of Monkey Grip.


    • The Fitzroy Baths are hard to miss if you live in the (Melbourne) eastern suburbs, but I’ve never swum there – maybe they don’t have a Masters club. I think all the bits describing inner Melbourne life are wonderful, just exactly how it feels to be there. I’m beginning to think women readers identified with Nora more than I did. I didn’t think she made good choices but the feeling wasn’t visceral.


  6. Hahaha Just when I thought I was all uptodate with your bookish thoughts.
    Helen Garner is one of the first Australian women writers (contemporary, I mean) that I remember having recommended to me. At the time she was very hard to find, and I can’t recall if this was the one I connected with in the end (it was very slim and I’m afraid that’s all I remember…so it might have been this one, as it sounds like the kind of “story” that might be harder to retain).


    • My thoughts keep coming, though if you skip reposts (you have my permission) you are safe till Thursday. Since Monkey Grip came out Helen Garner has been like Germaine Greer, not writing all the time but sort of always on the edge of our consciousness. I’ve always had Monkey Grip in my head as a novel I enjoyed and that was ‘important’ but it was interesting to go back and see how it set the scene for all her subsequent fiction. (Had to I suppose seeing as they’ve all been based on her life).


  7. Very interesting – I am not sure whether or not I’d take to this. I read quite a lot of ground-breaking women’s writing about the hideous grind of child-rearing at one point in the 90s and some grungey stuff too. I’d give it a go if I found it, though, so it’ll probably pop up in the charity shops now it’s in my mind. We definitely got The Spare Room here, though I didn’t fancy it (lightweight that I am!).


    • I’m not sure Nora ever gets down to the nitty gritty of child rearing, she mostly treats Grace as a small adult. But Garner sure gets down to the nitty gritty of everything else (one short story I read elsewhere was entirely about giving herself daily enemas).

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I read echoes of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong in here: it’s the 1970s, women speaking unabashedly about their desire for sex, and having no longing for a stable marriage/family unit as defined by society. However, I found myself thinking, “ehhhhhh…” as I read the part about the character telling eleven-year-old children about fucking. I’m not sure what other people’s experiences being introduced to sex education was like, but an adult talking about fucking, cocks, and cunts would have been deeply confusing and problematic for me. I don’t think it’s just “a fact of life” to talk about sex like that to such an age group. Also, I’m also hung up on the statement that drugs and love are no different, but I can see how some people would feel that way.


    • The thesis of the novel is that Nora is as desperate for love as Javo is for dope (heroin), not that the two are the same. It is one way at least of explaining what many readers have deplored as Nora’s poor choices.

      The episode that led to Garner’s sacking as a teacher, involved Garner engaging with a rough bunch of kids and giving them permission to use the language with which they were most familiar. I can imagine the swearing aspect is something that would be have to be got out of the way before the kids allowed themselves to see that sex involves mutuality and tenderness.

      The article is paywalled but I’m sure I can let you see more excerpts from it if you are interested.

      Yes, Nora (I’m not sure about Garner) and Jong both express “sixties” views about free sex.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Having just read my first Garner (Spare Room) and knowing nothing at all about Garner beyond that, it’s interesting to read about her first book and all the other tidbits you’ve included. Like getting fired from her teaching job – that must have been quite a scandal at the time! I didn’t realize she’s known for her autofiction – having read Spare Room that makes sense… I was wondering about that and hadn’t looked into it yet.
    I’d love to read more from her, but The Spare Room is all our library system has. Sometime I’ll have to go digging for another. And keep my eyes peeled at the used book stores!


    • I knew you were reading Spare Room, we must have been talking somewhere else. Garner gets savaged for her autofiction, it’s almost the first thing Australian readers know about her – because she is so apparently unsparing of her friends.
      I’m sorry your library system is so limited, and the mails so expensive (and ditto in reverse). Garner is an excellent stylist, perhaps even Orwellian in her sparse writing. And I’m glad I saw the connections between Monkey Grip and The Spare Room in time for you to read the latter.
      If/when you do a review I’ll add to the rest of AWW Gen 4.

      Liked by 1 person

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