This House Of Grief – Helen Garner


I have just finished reading Helen Garner’s This House of Grief. It is a remarkable achievement, especially since the story is so well-known that there is virtually no opportunity to create suspense. Yet it is suspenseful. It is not suspense as to the outcome of the trial. It is suspense over what will Helen think? How will the experience end up for her? What will she feel after having witnessed, day after day, the trawling, the mucking out of people’s lives? Since Helen is us – the reader – she asks the same questions. She has the same doubts over innocence, the same tingling in her gut. She is not frightened to tell us.

“One day, when court rose for lunch, I took my sandwich to the Flagstaff Gardens and lay on the grass under a tree. Why had Farquharson, during the first trial flashed outraged grimaces and vehement head-shakings at his sisters whenever the word ‘suicide’ was mentioned? Was there a moral register on which suicide was more disgraceful than murder? Perhaps the most shaming thing of all, a failure of nerve that no ‘Anglo-Saxon country bloke’ could possibly admit to, would be to launch a murder-suicide and not complete the act. I recalled a famous Sydney story about a man who threw himself off the Gap and was caught before he hit the rocks by a huge and timely wave. The coastguard vessel picked him up unhurt. ‘The minute your feet leave the ground,’ the saved man said, ‘you change your mind.’ An American mother I read about drove her car full of children into a river; she drowned and so did all her kids except the eldest, a ten-year-old, who fought his way across her lap and out through a part-open window. He told police that as the car began to sink his mother had cried out, ‘I made a mistake. I made a mistake.’

Was the core of the whole phenomenon a failure of imagination, an inability to see any further forward than the fantasy of one clean stroke that would put an end to humiliation and pain?

Cindy Gambino had observed that Farquharson had become a better father after their break-up. Perhaps a hard-working husband is screened from his children by the domestically powerful and emotionally competent presence of his wife. When the marriage ends and access visits begin, he has to deal with the kids on his own. He is shocked at first, finds his new duties exhausting and difficult and often tedious; but gradually, by virtue of this unmediated contact, the children’s reality penetrates his armour and flows into his nerves, his blood. Now that he knows them, and knows their love, his exile from their daily life causes him a sharper suffering. To a man who is emotionally immature, bereft of intellectual equipment and concepts, lacking in sustaining friendships outside his family, his children may appear to be not only the locus of his pain, but also the source and cause of it. If only he could put an end to it – amputate or obliterate this wounded part of him that will not stop aching! As the judge in the first trial put it in his sentencing, he forms a dark contemplation…

I watched the thought, to see what it would do. It firmed up, like jelly setting. And there is sat, quivering, filling all the available space.”

from “The Faraway Nearby” by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit

“Sometimes the key arrives long before the lock. Sometimes a story falls in your lap. Once about a hundred pounds of apricots fell into mine. They came in three big boxes, and to keep them from crushing one another under their weight or from rotting in close quarters, I spread them out on a sheet on the plank floor of my bedroom. There they presided for some days, a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved, and a harvest to be processed. They were an impressive sight, a mountain of apricots in every stage from hard and green to soft and browning, though most of them were that range of shades we call apricot: pale orange with blushes of rose and yellow-golds zones, upholstered in a fine velvet, not as fuzzy as peaches, not as smooth as plums. The ripe ones had the faint sweet perfume particular to that fruit.

I had expected them to look like abundance itself and they looked instead like anxiety, because every time I came back there was another rotten one or two or three or dozen to cull, and so I fell to inspecting the pile every time I passed by instead of admiring it. The reasons why I came to have a heap of apricots on my bedroom floor are complicated. They came from my mother’s tree, from the home she no longer lived in, in the summer when a new round of trouble began.”


Rebecca Solnit writes an anti-memoir about her mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s. I love that it is called an anti-memoir. Who knew that was a genre? That’s the genre I would like to end up in. A dark corner of the bookshop where maudlin people hang. Maybe what makes it an anti-memoir is its refusal tell a story chronologically, or to tell a story at all. Sometimes it feels like reading a literary thesis as she rambles on about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Reading this book you fall into the maze of the writer’s mind.

My own parents had a similar tree in their yard. Like Rebecca’s mother apricot. Except a mandarin. From the kitchen window it could be seen. My father hung his little pots of honeyed poison from it to catch the fruit fly that threatened it. A visit to their house at ripening season meant leaving with a shopping bag of freshly picked mandarins. Wanted or not. They were small and not very juicy. Their skin was fiercely adherent and difficult to peel. They often had discoloured patches that quickly turned brown and soft. Most of them ended up in the bin. But how my mother loved the fecundity of the tree. She loved that she had something for free that she had previously paid good money for. She loved that she could give containers of fruit to the neighbours or anyone who came visiting. A visit to June meant leaving with a dozen or so mandarins, a few of which were already on the turn.

Graham gave me the Rebecca Solnit book after reading the opening scene about the apricots. He knew it would remind me of my mother. A pang. Apricots. Mandarins. The fruit tree you harvest as its crop becomes plentiful but there is always too many to eat. The tree bursts forth all at once. Too many to give away. Instead they become binned. Others just fall and sink into the ground around the tree and become dirt.


from “We The Animals” by Justin Torres

we the animals

“We The Animals” is a slim book – almost thin enough not to be a novel at all, but a novella.

But it is so very rich in its thinness.

It is taut. Every word has its place and only that place will do. Like a perfectly tuned musical instrument.

I loved this book from the moment I picked it up – its sentences spoke to me instantly. I was there, in the grubby house with the Puerto Rican father and the white mother, locked into some struggle that children can’t name. All the while you have a sense of dread, stretching the skin of the balloon – bursting is inevitable.

It opens:

“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls: we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet: we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

Then later in this excerpt the boys attempt escape from the chaos of their home life;

“We reached an empty field, tossed our backpacks onto the grass, and set up camp. Wind whipped the tips of our ears and stole a plastic bag right out of Manny’s hand. He thought it was a sign and fished though our supplies until he pulled out a tight, fat roll of twine and three black plastic bags. We made kites: trash bags on strings. We ran, slipped, the knees of our dungarees all grass stained, we got up, ran, choked ourselves half to death with laughter, but we found speed, and our trash kites soared. We flew for an hour or so, until daylight fully buried itself into night and the light sank back, except for the stars and a toenail clipping of moon, and the kites disappeared, black on blackness. That’s when we let go,and our trash kites really soared – up and away, heavenward, like prayers, our hearts chasing after.”

It’s the kind of literature that delivers you bellyside to the narrator. We never even learn his name. But there we are  – in someone else’s skin. At times you want out, it is just too grim. But then that’s good writing. If this is the kind of writing you like then “We The Animals” is for you.


from “The North London Book of the Dead” by Will Self

Will Self“I suppose that the form my bereavement took after my mother died was fairly conventional. Initially I was shocked. Her final illness was mercifully quick, but harrowing. Cancer tore through her body as if it were late for an important meeting with a lot of other successful diseases.

I had always expected my mother to outlive me. I saw myself becoming a neutered bachelor, who would be wearing a cardigan and still living at home at the age of forty, but it wasn’t to be. Mother’s death was a kind of relief, but is was also bizarre and hallucinatory. The week she lay dying in the hospital I was plagued by strange sensation; gusts of air would seem personalised and, driving in my car, I had the sensation not that I was moving forward but that the road was being reeled back beneath the wheels, as if I were mounted on some giant piece of scenery.

The night she died my brother and I were at the hospital. We took it in turns to snatch sleep in a vestibule at the end of the ward and then to sit with her. She breathed stertorously. Her flesh yellowed and yellowed. I was quite conscious that she had no mind any more. The cancer – or so the consultant told me – had made its way up through the meningitic fluid in the spine and into her brain. I sensed the cancer in her skull like a cloud of inky pus. Her self-consciousness, sentience, identity, what you will, was cornered, forced back by the cloud into a confined space, where it pulsed on and then off, with all the apparent humanity of a digital watch.

One minute she was alive, the next she was dead. A dumpy nurse rushed to find my brother and me. We had both fallen asleep in the vestibule, cocooned within its plastic walls. ‘I think she’s gone,” said the nurse. And I pictured Mother striding down Gower street, naked, wattled.

By the time we reached the room they were laying her out. I had never understood what this meant before; now I could see that the truth was that the body, the corpse, really laid itself out. It was smoothed as if a great wind had rolled over the tired flesh. And it, Mother, was changing colour, as I watched, from an old ivory to a luminous yellow. The nurse, for some strange reason, had brushed Mother’s hair back off her forehead. It lay around her face like a fan on the pillow and two lightening streaks of grey ran up into it from either temple. The nurses had long since removed her dentures, and the whole ensemble – Mother with drawn-in cheeks and sculpted visage, lying in the small room, around her the loops and skeins of a life-supporting technology – made me think of the queen of an alien planet, resplendent on a high-tech palanquin, in some Buck Rogers Style sic-fi serial of the Thirties.

There was a great whooshing sensation in the room. This persisted as a doctor of Chinese extraction – long, yellow and divided at the root – felt around inside her cotton nightie for a non-existent heartbeat. The black, spindly hairs on his chin wavered. He pronounced her dead. The whooshing stopped. I felt her spirit fly out into the orange light of central London. It was about 3.00 am.”

from the short story “The Lost Order” by Rivka Galchen

from the NewYorker

What I love about this story in a recent New Yorker is the narrator’s anxiety, so wonderfully revealed. It has a Miranda July weirdness about it…

“I was at home, not making spaghetti. I was trying to eat a little less often, it’s true. A yoghurt in the morning, a yogurt at lunchtime, ginger candies in between, and a normal dinner. I don’t think of myself as someone with a “weight issue,” but I had somehow put on a number of pounds just four months into my unemployment, and when I realised that this had happened – I never weigh myself; my brother just said to me on a visit, “I don’t recognise your legs” – I wasn’t happy about it. Although maybe I was happy about it. Because at least I had something that I knew it wouldn’t be a mistake to really dedicate myself to. I could be like those people who by trying to quit smoking or drinking manage to fit in an accomplishment, or at least an attempt of an accomplishment, into every day. Just by aiming to not do something.”

and what about this for great description of two female delivery persons;

“I feel somewhat bad because I find I am staring at these women’s asses (I think of that word as the most gentle and affectionate of the options) and I feel somewhat good because both of the asses are so attractive, though they are quite different: one is juvenile and undemanding, and the other is unembarrassedly space-occupying and reminiscent somehow of gardening – of bending over and doing things. The pants are tight-fitting. I do know that I – and really everyone – am not supposed to think this way about women, or for that matter men, because, I guess the argument goes, it reduces people to containers of sexual possibility. But I’m not sure that’s quite what is going on. Maybe I just think these women have solved the getting-dressed problem.”


Roger Angell on Loss

Roger Angell, writing in the New Yorker, says it all perfectly…

“My wife, Carol, doesn’t know that President Obama won reelection last Tuesday, carrying Ohio and Pennsylvania and Colorado, and compiling more than three hundred electoral votes. She doesn’t know anything about Hurricane Sandy. She doesn’t know that the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, in a sweep over the Tigers. More important, perhaps, she doesn’t know that her granddaughter Clara is really enjoying her first weeks of nursery school and is beginning to make progress with her slight speech impediment. Carol died early last April, and almost the first thing that she wasn’t aware of is our son, John Henry, who is Clara’s father, after saying goodbye to her about ten hours before her death, which was clearly coming, flew home to Portland, Oregon. Later that same night, perhaps after she’d gone, he had a dream, which he wrote about briefly and beautifully in an e-mail to the family. In the dream she is hovering close to him, and they are on 110th Street, close to the Harlem Meer, at the Northeast corner of Central Park. The Park is bursting with spring blossoms. She is walking a dog that might be our fox terrier Andy. Then she falls behind John Henry. He turns to find her, and she has become an almost black shape and appears to be covered with feathers or black-and-dark-gray Post-its. She and the dog lift off the ground and go fluttering past him, and disappear over the low wall of the park.

What the dead don’t know piles up, though we don’t notice it at first. They don’t know how we are getting along without them, of course, dealing with the hours and days that now accrue so quickly, and, unless they divined this somehow in advance, they don’t know that we don’t want this inexorable onslaught of breakfasts and phone calls and going to the bank, all this stepping along, because we don’t want anything extraneous to get in the way of what we feel about them or the ways we want to hold them in our mind. But they’re in a hurry, too, or so it seems,. Because nothing is happening with them, they are flying away, over that wall while we are still chained and handcuffed to the weather and the iPhone, to the hurricane and the election and to the couple that’s recently moved in downstairs, in Apartment 2-S, with a young daughter and a new baby girl, and we’re flying off in the opposite direction at a million miles an hour. It could take many days now just to fill Carol in.”

from “Swimming Home” by Deborah Levy…

I devoured this short book on a plane ride home from Sydney. It was a gift. Delivering me from myself into a world of a French holiday villa and a troubled young woman in love with a poet. While the pinstriped-suited business man next to me, clamped in his Bose headphones watched Spiderman followed by Brave and then episodes of Modern Family, I was reading sentences like, Kitty stared at the sky smashing against the mountains. It is a book – mystical and magical. It is intensely visual and visceral. It is eerie and strange, and affecting. I love the deft touch across the characters, just enough, like you are glimpsing them through veiled curtains and then sometimes probing deeper, stepping into the room, sitting on the edge of the bed, holding their hand as they speak. It feels like Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” and I am sure someday it will be a film.

Here is a taste…

“So his lost daughter was asleep in Kitty’s bed. Joe sat in the garden at his makeshift desk, waiting for the panic that had made his fingers tear the back of his neck to calm as he watched his wife talking to Laura inside the villa. His breathing was all over the place, he was fighting to breathe. Did he think that Kitty Finch, who had stopped taking Seroxat and must be suffering, had lost her grip and murdered his daughter? His wife was now walking towards him through the gaps in the cypress trees. He shifted his legs as if part of him wanted to run away from her or perhaps run towards her. He truly did not know which way to go. He could try to tell Isabel something but he wasn’t sure how to begin because he wasn’t sure how it would end. There were times when he thought she could barely look at him without hiding her face in her hair. And he could not look at her either, because he had betrayed her so often. Perhaps now he should at least try and tell her that when she abandoned her young daughter to lie in a tent crawling with scorpions, he understood it made more sense of her life to be shot at in war zones than lied to him in the safety of her own home. All the same he knew his daughter had cried for her in the early years, and then later learned not to because it did not bring her back. In turn (this subject turned and turned and turned regularly in his mind), his daughter’s distress brought to him, her father, feelings he could not handle with dignity. He had told his readers how he was sent to boarding school by his guardians and how he used to watch the parents of his school friends leave on visiting day (Sundays), and if his own parents had visited him too, he would have stood forever in the tyre marks their car had made in the dust. His mother and father were night visitors, not afternoon visitors. They appeared to him in dreams he instantly forgot, but he reckoned they were trying to find him. What had worried him most was he thought they might not have enough English words between them to make themselves understood. Is Jozef my son here? We have been looking for him all over the world. He had cried for them and then later learned not to because it didn’t bring them back. He looked at his clever tanned wife with her dark hair hiding her face. This was the conversation that might start something or end something, but it came out wrong, just too random and fucked. He heard himself ask her if she like honey.


“Because I know so little about you, Isabel.”

He would poke his paw inside every hollow of every tree to scoop up the honeycomb and lay it at her feet if he thought she might stay a little longer with him and their cub.”

from “This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz

In his new collection of stories Junot Diaz writes,

“If this was another kind of story, I’d tell you about the sea. What it looks like after it’s been forced into the sky through a blowhole. How when I’m driving in from the airport and see it like this, like shredded silver, I know I am back for real. I’d tell you how many poor motherfuckers there are. More albinos, more cross-eyed niggers, more tigueres than you’ll ever see. And I’d tell you about the traffic : the entire history of late-twentieth-century automobiles swarming across every flat stretch of ground, a cosmology of battered cars, battered motorcycles, battered trucks, and battered buses, and an equal number of repair shops, run by any fool with a wrench. I’d tell you about the shanties and our no-running-water faucets and the sambos on the billboards and the fact that my family house comes equipped with an ever-reliable latrine. I’d tell you about my abeulo and his campo hands, and I tell you about the street I was born, Calle XXI, how it hasn’t decided yet if it wants to be a slum or not and how it’s been in this state of indecision for years.

But that would make it another kind of story, and I‘m having enough trouble with this one as it is. You’ll have to take my word for it. Santo Domingo is Santo Domingo. Let’s pretend we all know what goes on there.”


I love this.

I love that in telling us, the readers, what he would tell us if this were another kind of story, he tells us anyway. I guess it’s an artifice. A clever technique. Maybe he feels the character wouldn’t talk to us in this way but Junot, well, he really wants us to know this stuff. And I’m glad he does.

Writing advice from Ray Bradbury…

In Ray Bradbury’s introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition of his book Fahrenheit 451 he says;

” The novel was a surprise then and is still a surprise to me.

I’ve always written at the top of my lungs and from some secret motives within. I have followed the advice of my good friend Federico Fellini who, when asked about his work, said, ‘Don’t tell me what I’m doing. I don’t want to know.’

The grand thing is to plunge ahead and see what your passion can reveal.”


To me this is the essence of how many creative people work and the advice I too have received from Australian author, Sue Woolfe, in a workshop she gave to writers. She told the assembled bunch of awkward story-tellers that they “need not to know and need not to care” where their tale was going. Write and find it as you write it. Let it reveal itself to you.

Now on a yellowing piece of card I have this advice above my writing desk.

Even though it was writing advice maybe it is just plain good sense; PLUNGE AHEAD with life…

Maurice Sendak on ageing…

In the New Yorker May 21, 2012 Mariana Cook writes of her photographic session and interview some years later with the elderly writer Maurice. Looking at the photo of him and his dog he says,

“I am in my bathrobe in the forest with my dog, Herman, who is a German shepherd of unknowable age, because I refused to ever find out. I don’t want to know. I wish I didn’t know how old I was. This is far more than I expected, far more than I need, far more than I desire. I didn’t think I’d live this long.”


Thinking of ageing, I read a tweet by Alain de Botton. A parent with their child: ‘it will take at least 40 years till you’ll understand what I am feeling for you now.‘ How true is that! It has taken me this long to really know what it might have been like for my mother and father to be parents. It requires the experience of parenting your own child. I have much more empathy for my parents now and the choices they made. When I was a child I thought their decisions were unfair, that they didn’t understand me, that they didn’t let me do, or have, the things I wanted out of some kind of spite or mean-spiritedness. To think they were merely trying to do what I do now. And sometimes struggling.