Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

We’ve all known a couple that breaks up and gets back together over and over again. As teenagers, that sort of relationship drama seems to be part of the adolescent experience, but once you’re in your twenties and thirties the debriefings and speculation over what has been said and done wears thin.

Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip unpicks the relationship between Nora and Javo. It’s predominantly a story of addiction – Javo has a drug habit and Nora has a ‘Javo-habit’. As frequently as Javo says he is giving up drugs, Nora says she’s done with Javo. Neither stop and that is essentially the beginning and end of the story.

I was comforted by Javo’s gentleness; but I knew the gentleness of the departing to the one left behind. Still plenty of hard times coming.

The story is told from Nora’s perspective as she manages her six-year-old daughter, Gracie; their life in various share-houses; and her intimate relationships.

He was twenty-three then and maybe, I ignorantly surmised, wouldn’t get much older, because of the junk and dangerous idleness in the bloodstream. I hadn’t reckoned with the grit, nor with what would be required of me, nor with what readiness I would give it… People like Javo need people like me, steadier, to circle round for a while; and from my centre, held there by children’s needs, I stare longingly outwards at his rootlessness.

The story made me anxious from the beginning – the carelessness of the main characters was relentless (I guess there’s great writing skill in that…). I didn’t ‘like’ any of it and the parentification of the children in the share house and Nora’s flawed logic when it came to relationships made for exhausting reading.

I generally enjoy Garner’s pared back sentences but in this instance, the dialogue was straightforward to the point of being stilted. And to say that there was an overuse of the word ‘fuck’ is an understatement (my Kindle indicates that it is used 117 times in 245 pages).

‘Oh, somebody told me you’d been fucking with him lately.’
‘But I haven’t! Last night was the first time. Who told you that?’
‘Oh, I dunno. Someone.’ He took my hand. I sat down on the edge of the bed.
‘But I would always tell you if I fucked with anyone else!’

The detail about Melbourne kept me reading. Places I know well –  Carlton, Collingwood, and inner suburban public pools – are described so accurately that I wondered if anything had changed since Garner wrote the book in 1984. A place where I walk regularly gets a mention –

I got on my bike and rode off through Kew Junction, up the hill, along past the gardens of Raheen and the Catholic properties and the pine-scented dry ground of the edge of the golf course, over the hump to where Studley Park Road opened out in front of me: half a mile of steady, inexorable downhill run…. Down and round the wide metal curve, over the river almost invisible among humped trees, on my left the convent low down on its mediaeval banks, ancient trees shadowing its courts; and on to Johnston Street, slowing down from fight and back to legwork along the narrow road between the rows of closed factories.

And equally, there’s beauty in Garner’s simple descriptions. Of Gracie and another kid asleep, she writes that Nora finds them ‘…cast across the bed in attitudes of struggle and flight’.  But these lovely slips of sentences were not enough to sustain me through the relationship angst, the drug paraphernalia, and the idle days.

2.5/5 I love Helen but will stick to her narrative nonfiction in the future.

In the night plane between Melbourne and Hobart, speed, grass and brandy alexanders combined to produce a thick layer of paranoia through which all impressions of the world outside myself had to force their way.

9 responses

  1. ‘ I love Helen but will stick to her narrative nonfiction in the future.‘
    That’s exactly how I felt after attempting her diary Yellow Notebook. Now I know to steer clear of this too. Thank you.

  2. I wrote a carefully expressed response and then the internet failed. Suffice it to say that as a Garner lover – novels, narrative fiction, short stories, essays – nothing you’ve written here has put me off getting around to reading this book one day. I’m ashamed I haven’t already!

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