Helen Garner is an Australian literary icon – but I’m not sure how well she’s known overseas. (If you’re reading from elsewhere in the world, please let me know whether her reputation has made it across the pond!) I’ve read and studied plenty of her non-fiction, but mostly piecemeal, and not her fiction for which she’s equally well-known and respected. So, I decided to start at the beginning with Monkey Grip, her debut novel that came out in 1977.
Monkey Grip is famously based on Garner’s own life experiences and the diaries she kept around that time. She lived in share-houses around Melbourne while raising her young daughter in the ’70s, as her narrator does, and had tumultuous romantic relationships that mirror her characters’ too (more on those in a second). I remember Garner saying in an interview somewhere at some point that she later burned all the diaries she kept during that period, so Monkey Grip is the only real record of it that remains.
The story follows Nora, a single mother who falls in love with a heroin addict – while dealing with all the usual drama that comes with share-house living and young parenthood. You can tell from page one that Monkey Grip is going to be very sex-drugs-rock’n’roll. It’s all very bohemian, and not even in the annoyingly Instagrammable way that so many Melbourne polycules live today. There’s no self-consciousness about the way Nora and her cohort are living; they’re just hoping to find a better way to live than the rigid rules their parents and grandparents lived by, figuring it all out as they stumble along.
The characters are a little hard to follow, mostly because they drift in and out (of the share-houses, and Nora’s life in general) without much to anchor them or make them distinct in the reader’s mind. The only one who really sticks out is Javo, the “junkie” (Garner’s term, not mine) that steals Nora’s heart. Naturally, loving someone who lives with addiction – one they’re in no hurry to kick, by the way – is fraught with peril, especially when you factor children into the mix… not that Nora seems too worried about that.
Yeah, if Monkey Grip were released today, I daresay there’d be a lot of concern for Garner’s own child, given the autobiographical nature of the novel. Gracie, the fictional kid, bounces around a lot of very rough stuff, and seems to always exist on the very edge of neglect. Nothing terrible happens to her, she goes to school and seems well-fed, but it’s not the most stable environment. Surely, in today’s climate, some well-meaning self-righteous wowser would call protective services on Garner, but I guess people were a bit more live-and-let-live fifty years ago (thank goodness).
The narrative is a bit directionless, and the story doesn’t really go anywhere. The main “point” seems to be an account of addiction: to heroin, on Javo’s part, and to romantic entanglement on Nora’s. Both of them recognise that their addictions are destructive, but lack the will or motivation to push back against them.
Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference? They can both kill you.Monkey Grip (Page 106)
Nora simply narrates the highs and withdrawals – and her dreams. Oh, so many dreams. Recorded always with the same level of care and attention as she narrates real events. That’s when Monkey Grip really feels like a diary, where one might record their dreams from the night before.
So, without any real plot or drive, Monkey Grip didn’t blow me away – but there are many moments of beautiful prose, like little glimpses of Garner’s greatness to come. It might not be the best one of hers to start with if you’re new to her work, but if you’re already hooked and want to see where it all began, give it a go.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Monkey Grip:
- “They say that a woman’s mind is like a bucket of crabs, with one thought rising to the lip of the bucket, only to be pulled back down by the next random thought. That is what this book is like. It goes nowhere, presents nothing, and has no substance.” – Neal Ames
- “A pointless book about pointless people doing pointless things.” – Sir Readalot
- “My mother hated this book. More than enough reason to love it.” – Barb