Honour and Other People’s Children are novellas of 56 and 100 pp respectively. The front cover of my copy looks like the one above but adds “by the author of the best-seller, Monkey Grip”. Monkey Grip (1977), a fictionalisation of Garner’s experiences as a single mother living with a drug addict in inner Melbourne, was Garner’s first novel, coming out when she was 35, and after she was sacked as a teacher for writing an article about discussing sexuality with her students.
So this is Garner’s second. Rather slight, just slices of life – I guess her publisher was pushing her to take advantage of her initial success – with interestingly, more distance between the author and her protagonists than in her other works. Garner is of course famous for writing about herself and her friends, only loosely fictionalized, but if she is in these stories then she’s not so blatant about it. Though perhaps it’s just that they are both in third person.
Honour is the story of Kathleen, Frank, Jenny, all thirtyish, and Flo aged 6, told from Kath’s point of view. Frank has left Kath and Flo to live with Jenny and now he wants not just a divorce from Kath but for Flo to live with him and Jenny.
The setting of course is the inner suburbs of Melbourne, around Melbourne Uni, in the 1980s when gentrification was well underway in Parkville and Carlton, but not so much in North Carlton, North Fitzroy and the nearer parts of Brunswick, and beyond them, not at all.
Sometimes when you read Helen Garner you can work out, almost to the street, where she/her protagonist is living, by where she walks and the trams she takes. This story feels like Brunswick, once working class, ‘modernized’ by Greeks and Italians in the 60s and 70s before they moved on and out to bigger suburban houses, then taken over by young, Anglo bargain hunters. In fact, to get completely sidetracked by geography, it must be West Brunswick:
The house was at the bottom of a dead-end road with narrow, yellowing nature strips, and a railway line running across its very end like stitches closing a bag… Its facade, a triangle on top of a square, was slightly awry and painted the aqua colour favoured by Greek landlords.
In the late 60s when I first came to Melbourne, Brunswick Rd, Dawson St and all the other east-west roads that crossed that line had big white wooden gates that were opened and closed by a railway man in a little wooden hut; Brunswick was industrial, with factories and transport depots; and the Sarah Sands‘ customers had all lived through the Battle of Britain and if you went there on a Saturday night for the singing and dancing you could imagine Lancaster bombers overhead.
By the 80s that was just about all gone, Brunswick was seedy residential, and in Garner’s work implied rather than described, but unmistakably Melbourne. I digress. Kathleen and Frank have been happily separated for some time and both are surprised that he wants a divorce.
‘You see’, he began in a gentler voice, with his head on one side, ‘I’ve always thought I’d go on being related to you, for the rest of my life.’
Golly, that strikes a chord! The story meanders round a bit, establishing the connections between Kath and Frank, and the very knowing relationship Flo has with Kath. Kath and Jenny as you might expect have an awkward relationship, but Flo dreams that they might all live together. And in Garner’s world of share houses and cooperative living it is possible that they might. As the story ends Flo has persuaded her two mothers to sit facing each other on a seesaw:
It rose without haste, sweetly, to the level, steadied and stopped. They hung in the dark, airily balancing, motionless.
Other People’s Children
The second story has a completely new cast and is about the difficulties rather than the possibilities of shared living, about a share house in Fitzroy, say, which Garner contrasts with another house in Prahran, south of the river, where they just can’t do it right.
Scotty is a school teacher unhappy with her lumpy body, committed to cooperative living, but bossy with it. Ruth is a deserted mother of two with a complaisant daughter and a feral young son. Scotty and Ruth had lived in a happy, noisy women’s share house but the lease had run out and the best Scotty could find for them was this smaller house. The other tenant is a musician, Alex.
In the Prahran house Madigan, an inarticulate, unemployable, “great lump of a fellow”, has a ‘room’ which is a actually “a converted shed that sagged against the back fence”. His housemates are hippies. “The women worked at odd things, tolerated the three children of one of them, cooked huge, ill-assorted vegetarian meals, and listened respectfully to the opinions of the men, all of whom were musicians of one stripe or another.”
Madigan is a musician too, plays the mouth organ. The point of the story, I guess, is Ruth working up the courage to break free from Scotty, but the climax is a pub gig, Madigan up front leading Alex’s band and Scotty drunk, dancing: “… Madigan working away at the centre microphone … peeling off high, sheer ribbons of sound. Everyone was dancing.”
The last time I lived in a share house, in Drummond St, Carlton, next door to the police station, I was in my early 20s and the Young Bride and I were just back, unemployed, after a year in Queensland. I was chasing driving jobs, but the others were student teachers, on bursaries, primly middle class, house-sharing an economic rather than a political option, for us as well as them, and YB and I were soon in a little house at the coal yard end of Alfred Crescent.
The women and men of Garner’s households are a decade older, sharing is how they live. Garner knows them and dissects the tensions of their lives with wit, finesse and pellucid prose.
Helen Garner, Honour & Other People’s Children, McPhee Gribble, 1980 (Cover pic of Penguin edition, 1982)
Map of inner Melbourne (here). Brunswick is at the top and Prahran bottom right. Carlton isn’t named but is the area immediately to the right of Melbourne Uni in the centre. Google maps is very poor at showing railway lines, but the line to the northern suburbs (the Craigieburn line?) runs from south to north up the centre of the map.