by Helen Garner
McPhee Gribble/Penguin. $29.95 hb
The inner-suburban dinginess of Cosmo Cosmolino could place Helen Gamer within an honourable tradition stretching at least from Dickens (Charles) to Dickins (Barry). It is a tradition that, observing the mundane and the domestic (not to be confused with each other), has produced works of pathos and wit, of great emotional intensity and sparkling humour. It is a tradition within which great writers have managed to invest dull lives, mean-spirited characters, and tawdry events with charm and universal significance, with an appeal reaching beyond the local and the specific. It is also a tradition within which great novelists ensure that their readers’ sympathy and curiosity are aroused to the extent that they will keep turning the pages well beyond bedtime and care about what comes next.
It would be easy to say that Gamer’s book (a novella and two short stories that share themes, characters and memories) has been crushed under the weight of her much-vaunted and self-conscious style. But this would be to accept that what she has produced is, in fact, stylish and not merely laden with style. The language of Cosmo Cosmolino is not stylish; it is overloaded with the worst rococo excesses. Far from drawing the reader into the claustrophobic world her characters inhabit, Garner’s interminable search for the well-turned phrase and the superbly clever analogy serve only to distance the reader, constructing a fog that lifts only for the briefest of moments.