Jan McGuinness reviews 'A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her work' by Bernadette Brennan

Who is the I in Helen Garner’s work? This is the question Bernadette Brennan probes by canvassing more than forty years of Garner’s writing and her seventy-four-year existence. It is the proposition Garner’s fans and critics are most exercised by, although some presume to know the answer by reading her fiction as autobiography and her non-fiction as personal opinion.

Brennan examines both assumptions by tracing Garner’s steps to becoming a full-time writer in a style that is both thoughtful and readable. The framework is Garner’s lived experience and life-altering influences; the focus is Garner’s self-doubt and self-questioning, extensive reading, research, and journal keeping. Her personal life is sketchy at best; details are selected chiefly for their impact on her work and states of mind. And yet they are sufficient to orient the reader in time and place, and to sustain a biographical thread through chapters delineated by Garner’s various writings. As it turns out, a detailed biographical account is hardly necessary; Garner’s output so closely reflects the high and low points of her life. Furthermore, everything Garner has written is interrelated, says Brennan. Garner has revisited themes, relationships, situations, characters, and questions in a body of work encompassing fiction and non-fiction, essays, screenplays, short stories, and journalism.

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Published in May 2017, no. 391

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