Vicki went to the boys’ room and fortified herself, as women do, with the sight of sleeping children, the abandonment of limbs, the oblivious breathing, the throats offered to the blade. ‘If anyone came to harm them,’ thought Vicki, ‘I would kill. Without even thinking twice.’
I have a theory that having children is, among other things, simply to re-live one’s childhood from the other perspective. Sometimes, re-reading can have the same perspective-shifting effect. One Sunday night I returned to Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach, devouring it in a single sitting under a blanket on the sofa. If pressed to choose, I would say that this slender novella is among my favourite books.
Dexter & Athena Fox live in the Melbourne suburbs with their two small children, precocious Arthur & autistic Billy. It’s the mid 80s. The Children’s Bach is the story of what happens when their gentle, constrained domesticity rubs up against the casual presence of drugs, music & sex brought into their lives by Dexter’s old university friend Elizabeth, her boyfriend Philip, and her much younger sister Vicki.
It’s the kind of book that I was interested in even before I had children, a slim book that opens a door on family life & unflinchingly strips bare its attractions and its constraints. We see seventeen-year-old Vicki’s fervent love of the Foxes’ family life, her attraction to the domesticity and safety of Bunker Street, her desire to understand the slow-moving world of the mothers: “Athena’s life was mysterious to Vicki. She seemed contained, without needs, never restless.” And we see, from Athena’s perspective, the trap that motherhood can become. She stands outside a bookshop reading the room-to-let cards in the window, imagining herself living in each house or flat: “Her children dematerialised, her husband died painlessly in a fall from a mountain. What curtains she would sew! What private order she would establish and maintain, what handfuls of flowers she would stick in vegemite jars, how sweetly and deeply she would sleep, and between what fresh sheets!” Oh, yes. That order, those clean sheets! I too have now imagined those.
Garner is fantastic on overheard snippets of conversation, dialogue with children, and the myriad small details of family life. The point of view fizzes between the characters, sometimes jumping from line to line, sparing no-one the faults of ego and ambivalence. She leaves space around her characters. We sense things changing, like the weather, as Athena and Dexter’s relationship falters: “The edifice trembles.” Her technique is reflected in the advice Philip, Elizabeth’s on/off musician boyfriend, gives to a girl whose song he likes:
Go home and write it again. Take out the clichés…Just leave in the images…You have to steer a line between what you understand and what you don’t. Between cliché and the other thing. Make gaps. Don’t chew on it. Don’t explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.
I first read The Children’s Bach twelve years ago, just after I’d graduated. I can remember the dusty secondhand bookshop in Adelaide where I picked it up. Like Vicki, I was fascinated by the self-contained, absorbed world of motherhood. I read it again in 2006, the year before the Biscuit was born. And now I return to it, a mother of three, edging towards the age of the ‘grown-ups’ among its characters. My perspective has shifted, my allegiances have changed; I know at least a little more, but I still love this spare, taut, perfect exploration of the inescapable gravitational pull of family.
I would follow Helen Garner’s prose anywhere. I read this essay – taking in aging, death, conversations with her grandchildren, the financial crisis & cowboys – earlier in the week and loved it.