In year twelve I had a fabulous teacher called Greta, and Greta let us call her by her first name.
She baked the best raspberry and white chocolate muffins I’ve ever had. She cursed in class and bummed cigarettes off students at the Valediction dinner. She took us to gigs on Sydney Road after we graduated and even went backpacking in South America with a classmate’s Mum.
And she introduced me to the Fox family and their burrow of a home in Helen Garner’s eighties Melbourne.
When I finished The Children’s Bach for the first time, I grabbed Dad’s 4WD keys from the container on the kitchen counter, took the Melways out from the seat pocket and tried to locate where exactly on the Merri Creek the Foxes lived. I identified an area – about a two-by-two centimetre block on the map – that seemed plausible, and with that sense of physical possibility, Athena, Dexter, Elizabeth, Philip, and Vicki cemented themselves in my mind. And unlike a lot of people I’ve met and known in the time since I first read The Children’s Bach, Garner’s cast of characters has stayed with me.
I can’t remember how long it was between my first and second readings of the book, but I know I’ve probably read it as many times as an octave has notes. When I open the book for a re-read I’m drawn to the familiarity of the characters and their world. I shake my head and exhale, as I imagine Athena does, at Dexter’s showmanship.
I listen for the crash of Vicki’s bike against the bins round the side of the Bunker Steet house.
And I watch Poppy, with some of the same jealousy Elizabeth harbours, scale the keys of the grand pianos at Allens.
Though I didn’t think it was a perfect novella when I first read it. No, not at all. While I was absolutely stunned at just how dimensional Garner’s characters were, I thought the narrative structure was flimsy. I thought it jumped about too much, was too messy. But just recently, I read a years-old interview with Garner about the process of creating The Children’s Bach. She said the novella was basically the arrangement of a whole lot of notebooks.
One notebook for each character, she said.
She arranged and slotted the different parts of Dexter and Athena until they were a family, and around them she moved Elizabeth and Philip and Vicki. The arrangement, I think now, is perfect. Chunks of narrative strands collide as do the characters. Dexter’s traditionalist views on “love” and marriage are disrupted by the liberal Elizabeth, who is sleeping with Philip, a man Garner shows fucking nameless girls without emotion on one page, and tenderly clipping his daughter Poppy’s toenails on another. And, of course, at the heart of all this Garner places Athena, the domestic goddess who fantasises about her husband Dexter dying without pain, and, more shockingly, about pushing her disabled son under a car.
The narrative threads – like the characters – overlap and weave through each other; they push and pull and challenge each other.
And this has a lot to with why I keep pulling the book down from my shelf (and thanks to Mum’s handiwork with a roll of clear contact, my copy is still in great condition). Like a collage or a mosaic or something that’s comprised of lots of little bits, there’s something new to find every time you take the time to look it over.
And of course, Garner’s prose is so stunningly fucking beautiful most every sentence makes me swoon. Often – probably once a week – I’ll open the book to a random page to find pearler’s like,
‘She hated them. She closed her eyes with hatred. Dexter saw her in the mirror and thought she had fallen asleep. Unresisted now, his tenderness for the whole world rushed to envelop her’ and, ‘She imagined that Philip indulged in sexual perversion with strangers. Every man she met was inferior to Dexter, but only, perhaps, because she had chosen that this should be the case’
and I read these sentences with greedy jealousy
and I lie back on my bed and I breathe
and I think, this is how it’s done.