The Children’s Bach & Monkey Grip

and Contemporary
This edition printed in: ,

A calico tabby sits on a bed with a patterned quilt. Beside her is a stack of two matching books by Helen Garner.

Reno Time is Here and Gone

This week we’ve had to deal with a much planned and anticipated renovation that upended three rooms at the same time. I dreaded it, but it wasn’t such an awful task to empty rooms or shove furniture into their centres — however, I could done without all of the help from the cats. Rusalka loves to wedge herself into whatever space she is least likely to fit in, especially if that space is changing in front of her. Stacking books? Rusalka’s there. Moving the bed? Rusalka’s there, trying to get into the slats. Trying to find a place for those breakable ink bottles? Rusalka will try to trip you before deciding to sit exactly where you were putting the ink.

Then once the renovations got underway, it feels like I didn’t see our youngest much at all. When she was a kitten, Rusalka loved people, but now she’s much more wary and that means she spent most of the time under my chair. Wesker basically followed her schedule like nothing was happening and Bandersnatch was so nosy that she made a thorough investigation of all the rooms at the end of every day and in every lunch hour. Jabberwocky? She disappeared under the covers. Bubastis slept through it.

A calico tabby sits beside two books by Helen Garner: Monkey Grip and The Children's Bach.

Two by Helen Garner

I have reviewed Helen Garner’s work before, specifically This House of Grief. When I ordered that book, I also ordered the other two that Pantheon reissued, and now that I’ve read them both, I’ve decided to make this a two-for-one review. Garner is one of those writers that I wish more people had read. I love her writing style, and her clever economy of words that provides the reader enough room to think carefully about every sentence and every turn of phrase. She’s a prolific writer who is very well-known in Australia, specifically for writing about the emerging Bohemian life of 1970s Melbourne. Questioning the role of women in a changing society, she makes bold statements without ramming them down the reader’s throat.

A calico tabby looks over the tops of two standing books.

Monkey Grip and The Children’s Bach are both about the family unit and women in a changing world, but each takes a different approach. While Monkey Grip was published first, The Children’s Bach was more well-received critically. Comparing the two is comparing two different structures and two different means to the same end. There are also important stylistic differences to note. This is one of those instances when comparing two novels gives you greater insight into each work individually, and greater insight into Garner’s specific mastery of the craft of writing.

The Children's Bach by Helen Garner is a book with a white, minimalist cover. The image on the cover is a very simple red-coloured etching of two hands playing a piano.

Similar Themes, Different Books

As I said, both of these books look at the emerging Bohemian lifestyle of 1970s Melbourne. Monkey Grip follows Nora, a single mother who lives in a series of communal or shared houses, trying to write and the raise her daughter amid the chaos of a revolving door of friends, acquaintances, addicts, drifters, and people living on the fringes of society. Eventually she falls in with Javo, a heroin addict who is in and out of her life.

In The Children’s Bach, the focus in on Athena and Dexter, a married couple whose relationship and family dissolve as Dexter’s old friend Elizabeth comes into their lives and brings along her much younger sister Vicki along with her as well as several others who will not leave the house. As a warning, The Children’s Bach includes some very horrible ableist ideas concerning the couple’s son who has an unspecified type of neurodivergence and which the couple view as a burden and wish dead, and there is sexual activity/abuse involving a minor.

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner is a book with a minimalist white cover. The image on the cover is a very simple blue-coloured etching of a human silhouette lying on a square.

Exploring Ideas from Multiple Angles

In my — and the critics — opinion The Children’s Bach is a better book because it does a better job delivering the message that Garner clearly intends but does not manage to clearly state. That the ‘freedom’ of a destructive lifestyle is not truly free and instead becomes the ultimate downfall of those that engage in it as well as the innocents around them, often children. Garner is careful to point out that it’s not outside influences that somehow warp good people into bad ones. That these characters were not good to start with and were already headed towards their own ruin well before the introductions of others or different circumstances.

Monkey Grip and The Children's Bach by Helen Garner are two books in matching editions. Both have minimalist white covers with simple etching-style drawings. The Children's Bach's drawing is red. Monkey Grip's is blue.

Both books explore the idea that, while women and their role in society was changing to afford more possibilities other than housewife, there were other boxes and cages they were often shoved into or else entered willingly. That still women were expected to build their lives around men or around children and suffered a loss of identity.

The Children’s Bach has a plot that is more linear and illustrates this point in a way that is a bit more accessible for the reader. It also does so more elegantly. Monkey Grip I found too long and too aimless in a lot of ways. It became a catalogue of meaningless days with too many characters and not enough substance to justify the page count. Monkey Grip also had a focus on sex that brought it down from where it was trying to ascend. Nora lacks dimension because sex seems to be the part of life she is most obsessed with — to the detriment of her art, her child, and any meaningful relationship she could hope to achieve.

Two books by Helen Garner are fanned on a bed with a busy blue quilt. A calico tabby sits beside them.

Settling Back In

Hopefully by the end of today, everything will be back in place and the house will feel like its mine again instead of a quasi-construction site. Not that it was too much of a mess, but I don’t like it when my stacks and furniture and schedule is out of place for too long. However, I found this reno much less stressful than the last one and I think part of the reason is that I’ve learned to be more flexible and not anticipate that every discomfort is going to turn into a complete disaster.

Two books by Helen Garner sit, spine-out. One spine is red; one spine is blue. A calico tabby sits behind them, looking confused.

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