HOLDEN Caulfield, the teenage protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, says: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him (sic) up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
That’s how I feel about Helen Garner.
I think of Helen Garner almost as a friend, as well as one of my favourite authors. Helen got so used to seeing me line up for her to sign her latest work, that she wrote on the flyleaf of one: ‘to Dina, in queue after queue’. On another occasion, I happened to see her in the’ Intimate Apparel’ departme nt of David Jones. Of course, I just happened to have in my bag a brand new copy of ‘My Hard Heart,’ her latest short story collection. With my usual chutzpah, I sidled up to Helen and asked her to sign it. I remember she looked tiny and delicate that summer, and was wearing little pink lace gloves. She signed my book with a wry smile, probably recognising me as one of her groupies. On the flyleaf she wrote: ‘To Dina, just before Christmas, in the knicker department of DJ’s. Warm regards etc…. ‘
The main reason I think of Helen Garner as a friend is her personal, intimate, writing style, which invites the reader into her heart and her life. She seems to hold nothing back even if it’s to her detriment (as it perhaps was, in ‘The First Stone.’) She is able to say so much with so little verbosity. Her style is always spare, even chiseled, yet never dry. Re-reading her collection ‘The Feel of Steel’ I was struck again by her economy of prose, which expresses such honest emotions so ardently, yet without sentiment. How does she do it? Like an artist, who, with a few strokes achieves a likeness, so she paints vivid word pictures of feelings, events, sights and smells, without verbosity, and in luminous, concise prose.