Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

This is the book I chose to write about in my MA degree as the book that changed my life. At the time it felt like I just pulled it out of the air, but it is one of the few books that I keep returning to and seeing something more in it, more layers, more meanings. It helps that it is so small, at only 245 pages, probably too short to get published these days. It is the story of a single mum in Melbourne, Australia, in the mid 1970s, living mostly on benefits, in big houses where people drift in and out, in apparent chaos, but there is a lot going on here.

The book begins with:

“In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for us all to sit up at the meal table; one or two of us always sat on the floor or on the kitchen step, plate on knee. It never occurred to us to teach the children to eat with a knife and fork. It was hunger and all sheer function; the noise, and clashing of plates, and people chewing with their mouths open, and talking and laughing. Oh, I was happy then. At night our back yard smelt like the country.”

At first this seems like the start of yet another tale of growing up in poverty, but this is poverty of choice, of people living in noisy communality, because they rejected the conservativism of their parents, of the war time generation, this is the dawn of a new world.

The story revolves around Nora, who falls hopelessly in love with Javo, a junkie who keeps promising to give up the stuff but she knows she is in competition with chemicals. Unlike many before and since, she does not judge or criticise his habit, but does her best to live with it. Whilst this may seem weakness, it is very much a part of the time, of freedom, of following the flow of life, of accepting whatever people were.

Garner’s prose is a masterclass in minimalism. In the maelstrom of people and action, there is very little description. People are described as having blonde hair, a pair of glasses, long limbs, or in the case of Javo, intense blue eyes often swamped with the white of the drugs, his pasty, pimpled skin, his lantern head.

“He was twenty-three then and maybe, I ignorantly surmised, wouldn’t get much older, because of the junk and the dangerous idleness in the bloodsteam. I hadn’t reckoned with the grit, nor with what would be required of me, nor with what readiness I would give it. Givin’ it all away. 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.”

So, here’s why Nora does it. She is not some hopeless loser being imposed upon by Javo; there is a part of her that cannot, and will not live his chaotic, dangerous life, but she gives him stability and he gives her a sense of – – what is it? Freedom? Because another strand in this story is about single mums – in those days they were no single dads. The pill had freed women from having to have kids, but once the kids arrived, it was always the mum who cared for them, notwithstanding all the friends and family that were part of her community and households. So, not a lot has changed.

After a discussion over who each of them might be sleeping with, “I could let my heart sink, sometimes, in spite of the way work buoys it up. It wasn’t being in love, or loving, that made the difficulty: but the awful silent fear of not being loved in return.”

Nora’s feelings for Javo are in constant flux; perhaps that is part of his appeal also:

“Last time he was in my house, he walked down the stairs in front of me; as he turned at the landing I saw the angle of his cheek, and the tousled back of his head, and the double feeling of tenderness and revulsion ran over me. There would never be an end to it, because I couldn’t hate him as I had (for a while, at the end) hated other people who had hurt me. He was too helpless to be hated wholeheartedly.”

Garner is also wonderful in her description of atmosphere and place. This is her emerging from a dose of the flu: ”In the morning, light and air wake me. I go outside and see the sky a thousand miles high, covered with a fine net of almost invisible cloud. My head begins to turn, it fills with unspoken words, I don’ try to seize them but let them run unchecked. They seem to slip into my veins and my limbs and the capillaries of my skin. It is just convalescence, and the summer morning. ‘the universe resounds with the joyful cry “I am!”’

And being a single mum had its problems of course. This is her on sharing a house with another single mum, because living in such chaos was incredibly fun, but it was also hard: ”I waited for Gracie, thinking of her intelligent, ready face, her wiry legs, her secret, thumb-sucking smile. But I knew that, as soon as she came back, the house would be too small again and we would all go crazy.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t love Rita and Juliet: on the contrary, I suffered from some painful emotion towards them, something to do with Rita’s daily struggle to live, and the fact that I had been through this struggle myself with Gracie, years before: hating her because her existence marked the exact limits of my freedom; hasting myself for hating her; loving her, all the while gut-deep and inexpressible; and beginning each day with the dogged shouldering of a burden too heavy for one person: the responsibility for the life of another human being. I had been rescued from this bind by Eve and Georgie and Clive, back in the old house: they had prised us apart patiently, lovingly, tinkering and forcing. It takes more than one person to perform this most delicate operation, and, trapped there in the tiny, beautiful house with Rita and her battle, I knew I didn’t have it in me. All I could think of was to escape. For weeks I thought treacherously of getting away: I lay in bed at night and racked my brains for an honourable solution”

And more insight into the merry go round of partners they were constantly riding:.

“I thought about Rita and the way she turned her face up and fluttered and shone; how she   hid her own private fear and wretchedness; how she gave herself generously, without reserve, loved too loyally, without criticism; and how we all thrashed about swapping and changing partners – like a very complicated dance to which the steps had not yet been choreographed, all of us trying to move gracefully in spite of our ignorance, because though the men we knew often left plenty to be desired, at least in their company we had a little respite from the grosser indignities.”

As time passes, Nora begins to understand her own response to Javo and his drugs:

“I felt at the same moment the aching start again and the beginnings of a small stream of happiness. The aching was for the ralisation that, months ago, the dope had not terminated out relationship, but had interrupted and changed it; the happiness was for the mother in me , watching him gather himself and take off.”

And more growing self awareness:

“I looked in my purse and found the money. I held it out to him: he put out his hand, palm upwards, his face turned away towards the street. I dropped the coins into his hand and he made no acknowledgement. My insides performed a little dance of anger and sadness. No, no, said my resolution, the small voice of reason, he asked and you gave. You didn’t have to give, and he didn’t have to be grateful. Giving is not bartering.”

For all the chaos in their lives, the lack of fidelity, there is a sense that they will always be close. That at the end, we sense that Nora, far from a victim, has, like any parent, grown as much as her child from their relationship.

“”I realised I had a stream of thoughts about him which ran for the most part below conscious level. I noticed jets spurting up from this stream: comparisons with other relationships I knew of which had weathered massive changes and shifts of balance; small crumbs of hope that he would find he missed the familiarity of my company, or that his gestures of comfort had meant more than a gentle goodbye. I grieved for these hopes and their hopelesness.”

This is a book set in a time and a place I caught the tail end of. I loved it then, and love it now as a record of the period, when young Australia was starting to find its way in the world, shaking off the conservativism, the end of the Vietnam war; like any revolution, it had its victims. I remember my mother reading this and finding it so depressing. I can see why, but that is perhaps the whole point. Her generation, the war generation, was what people like Garner and her characters were not just rebelling against, but were part of a giant urban social experiment of the time. The people who emerged from that chaos are today’s leaders, artists, journalists.

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