Helen Garner: Yellow Notebook

by jenniferlbryce

 

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When I first read that Helen Garner had published her diaries kept from 1978 to 1987, I selfishly thought, oh — if only I’d kept a journal — what a way to publish your autobiography! I do wish that I had kept diaries, as Helen Garner has done, but I doubt they would be as readable as Garner’s. And this is not an autobiography.

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After burning her early journals, Helen Garner decided to start writing in a journal again – around 1978 – and did so in a yellow notebook –  hence the title. When I picked up the published book, I expected to find that the journal had been edited – maybe there would be themes – after all, Garner has been known to say that her first novel, Monkey Grip was just an edited version of her diaries of that time.

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Clearly, the extracts have been selected, but they are presented as a serendipitous collection of musings, quotes, descriptions… Her endeavours to keep friends, lovers, husbands anonymous sometimes make the reading heavy going. As a writer, I found it fascinating to have glimpses of Garner’s daily routine, of how she quite often had to drive herself to write. I was surprised that this writer who, even back in 1978, was ‘successful’, has a  lurking lack of confidence. She is cut to the quick when there are harsh reviews of her work and elevated to blissful delight when the reviews are good.

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Garner has been a hero of mine ever since I read Monkey Grip back in 1978.  In both her fiction and non fiction (and I have heard her discuss that there is not a lot of sense in these distinctions) Garner confronts the reader with the reality of our existence — be it in a rooming house imprisoned by drug addiction or in a courthouse confronted by human frailty. So too in these diaries there were moments when I was entranced by her attention to detail or her encapsulation of a feeling by use of metaphor. We do have to wade through some of Garner’s everyday notes. This is not intended to be a polished novel or essay, but, as Peter Craven has written in The Saturday Paper, ‘worlds of incident and feeling are clipped into a shape of entrancing implication’.https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/culture/books/2019/11/30/yellow-notebook/15726132009005

A few of these descriptions are:

‘doors open in my head like those in a cuckoo clock’ [page 7], on preparing food ‘the brutality of its preparation’ [page 19], ‘her permed brown hair quivering’ [page 30], ‘the music ran, bounced and thickened’ [page 42], ‘500-watt blue eyes’ [page 82], ‘she paraded in, chin high, teeth blazing’ [page 118], ‘a grille clanged down between him and the world’ [page 233], ‘the jaws of my purse straining wide’ [page 245], ‘the monolith of his marriage’ [page 253]

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