On 30 March 2001 Helen Garner attended a Victims of Crime Rally on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House.
The sun shone on a loose crowd that was forming at the top of Bourke Street. Many of the demonstrators had attached pictures of their murdered loved ones to their T shirts … On their backs people wore the slogan MAKE THE PUNISHMENT FIT THE CRIME. A common poster read LET THE VICTIM HAVE THE LAST WORD IN THE SENTENCE.
Garner describes suffering faces, clumsy and sob-broken speeches, anger sharpened to ‘rough, skin-prickling eloquence’, recitations of lists of the dead, lists of crimes and sentences. At the end of the rally, Garner asked some of the speakers for their addresses. When she told a man who had impressed her with his eloquence – he wore an Akubra and his face was ‘sun-creased, sparkly-eyed and intensely like-able’ – that she was writing a book about a murder, he shook her hand and said, ‘[T]hanks for takin’ an interest’.
In the course of her literary career, not everyone has been so appreciative of Garner’s inquisitive persona. She portrays herself – in the stories ‘Little Helen’s Afternoon’ and ‘La Chance Existe’ in Postcards from Surfers (1985), for example – peering through windows; through windows of the soul; indeed, through any little chink or chance that presents itself. In this pursuit, she knows what ‘the first stab of real, business-like curiosity’ feels like, and is hardly slowed by being reprimanded that ‘you must realise … that this thing is not being played out for the benefit of your finer feelings’ (The First Stone, 1995). She has spoken respectfully of the ‘privilege of looking into other people’s lives’. It is an essential part of the process of what the critic Kerryn Goldsworthy describes in her book Helen Garner (1996) as Garner’s ‘opening up of narrative authority … the multiple point of view’. Nonetheless, she has often come a cropper for being a bit of a perv.