Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner


I can't say when I last read a book of essays, but based on this Australian author's novel The Spare Room that I read in 2009 and Reading Matters' review, I decided to give it a try. It's so good that all I can do is fill this post with quotes.

One essay is called Eight Views of Tim Winton, thus combining a reference to Japanese woodblock prints, e.g., Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, and one of my favorite authors. They became friends and she tells about a time they went to church together. Kneeling at the alter rail to receive communion, rather than responding to the offering by the pastor with the usual "Amen," Winton says, "Thanks, mate." 

 At some point she shared a house with a 'saved' Christian as she puts it, who harangued her about Jesus at the drop of a hat. When Tim came for a visit, her housemate was eager to have a theological talk with him. She left the house and when she asked Tim about the encounter, he told her, "Oh…we talked. And in the end I said to him, 'Why don't you give the book a rest? Why don't you let your life be your witness?'"

Sometimes her joy and excitement made me weep in agreement. This instance is particularly poignant:

Am I imagining an unusual quiet over the city? A breathlessness? The world is waiting for the news:  will the US elect a black president? I hardly dare turn on the TV. But when I do I sit there and sob out loud. Tears absolutely pop out of my eyes. Olive [her 8-year-old granddaughter] comes in the back door and gazes at me curiously. 'I'm crying with happiness,' I say, 'because of Obama. Obama! OBAMA! To think I'm alive when this happened! It's better than men walking on the moon!' She puts down what she is carrying, approaches me with an ironical little smile, and gives me a mature hug, patting my shoulder. In this she is so like her mother that I cry even more.

I love the way she's willing to reveal herself:

On the couch I watch ep after ep of Mad Men. Don Draper goes to California and falls in with some Eurotrash layabouts who on the DVD case are described as 'exciting new friends' but are in fact shallow bores. Roger dumps his wife and goes off with a secretary who is vain about her looks and fancies herself as a poet: languorous sensuality and all the rest. I lie here, a batty old nanna, shouting at the screen, 'Do NOT get into that car.' 'Oh, shut up, you stupid idiot.' But when it's over I set up the board and, in the spirit of Betty Draper, iron the pillowcases.

Although she, like everyone else, she says, knows Darcy, Miss Elizabeth, and her "skewed array of sisters," when she opened Pride and Prejudice, she realized she had not read it. In a dozen pages she gives us a hilarious recounting of it that alone is worth the price of the book. I particularly liked her reaction when she comes on Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth halfway through the book.

The cunning minx! She was going to make me wait another 218 pages for a resolution! Torn between despair and violent longing, I was obliged to rise from my sopha and take a turn around the drawing room.

 In one section called On Darkness she writes about the horrific stories of murder that she writes books about and trials she attends. These were so painful to read, I can't imagine being immersed in that long enough to write a book. In a different section she writes about seeing the movie United 93, about the 9/11 hijacked plane that was diverted by passengers. She says

I was left with a confused mixture of respect for the craft of the movie, amazed admiration for the people who charged the hijackers, and the old haunting question:  why do stories matter so terribly to us, that we will offer ourselves up to, and later be grateful for, an experience that we know is going to fill us with grief and despair?

She tells about a summer when she worked in a department store:  "My feet ached that summer. They ached rhythmically, like string quartets of pain, and, by the end of each day, like a great screaming Wagnerian orchestra."

I learned a new Australian slang phrase: "spat the dummy" which refers to an adult's angry outburst. Well, I guess I learned both a phrase and a new word: a dummy is a baby pacifier. 

 Helen Garner, Everywhere I Look, Text Publishing, 2016, 240 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from Amazon.

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