There’s something I particularly love about the form of the novella. When a story is compressed into such as short space, every sentence and every word feels more precious, more meaningful, more demanding of your attention somehow. The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner is a pretty excellent example of the depth and complexity that can be achieved in this form, with carefully selected details and tight, expressive language beautifully arranged in a collage of 1980s family life in Melbourne.
This is a brief whisper of a story about two families whose lives become entangled after the chance reunion of Dexter and Elizabeth, who lived together “almost as sister and brother” for five years as uni students. Now, Dexter lives a safe, comfortable life with his wife Athena and two sons, one of whom is severely disabled. When Elizabeth, her feckless lover Philip and her teenage sister Vicki – with their different and challenging ways of viewing the world – all become entangled in their lives, their various relationships are tested and unravelled.
We could choose almost any character as the heart of the story, but Athena is possibly one of the most intriguing, and relatable. We are introduced to Athena and Dexter with a sweet, idealised image: “she loved him. They loved each other.” But their relationship is already strained before Elizabeth and her entourage come along – they are just the trigger for Athena to act on feelings she has been suppressing. The safety of routine is suffocating her, holding her back from her desire to be someone else in a life more exciting, more reckless, more spontaneous than hers. Dexter adores her, but he also idealises her and it’s smothering. He is a kind man, but he sees the world in a very simple, contented way, and is oblivious that other people might see it differently.
One scene early in the novella illustrates how trapped Athena is feeling. Lingering outside a bookshop, she reads the handprinted cards in the window on which people advertise rooms to rent, and we are drawn into her yearning, her secret fantasy of a different kind of life, one where she could be someone new without the constraints of her family:
“Athena lived, for as long as it took to read a card, in each sunny cottage, each attractive older-style flat, spacious house, quaint old terrace, large balcony room with fireplace, collective household with thriving veggie garden. Her children dematerialised, her husband died painlessly in a fall from a mountain. What curtains she would sew, what private order she would establish and maintain, what handfuls of flowers she would stick in vegemite jars, how sweetly and deeply she would sleep, and between what fresh sheets.”
While it’s not a particularly shocking or outrageous desire – to simply be alone and free – her longings make it easy to see how she could be lured into a fantasy of carelessness and adventure and possibility when the opportunity presents itself, embodied in the free-spirited nature of Philip.
There’s something else holding Athena back. The disabled boy, Billy is at the centre of their family dynamic, a source of frustration and discomfort and thoughts they’d rather not say out loud:
“There was a big truck,” said Vicki. “And I thought, I could push him under it. Do you ever, have you ever – ”
“Of course,” said Athena. “Hundreds of times.”
Billy is a brick that keeps dragging them down, as much as they try to ignore him. Athena has given up on trying to get through to him, on believing that there’s “some kind of wild, good little creature trapped inside him” and protects herself by becoming cold. “There’s nobody in there,” she keeps telling herself and others; he’s not a real person.
She explains to Elizabeth that soon they can “get rid of him”, send him off to a special home, and she’s just tolerating the burden of this non-child until then. “I’ve abandoned him, in my heart,” she says. “It’s work. I’m just handing on till we can get rid of him… The very thought of it is like a dark cloud rolling away.” It’s a pretty startling kind of honesty, characteristic of Garner, and the discomfort I felt while reading this saturated the whole novella with a chilling sense of uneasiness.
The book is porous, with holes where things are left unexplained, time gaps where events are left out, things slipping through all the time. It’s arranged like a mosaic, with fragments pieced together to create the impression of a whole, while still not quite telling us the whole story. I remember reading an interview with Garner in which she explained the process of writing The Children’s Bach. She said the novella was a patchwork of a bunch of notebooks she had been keeping, one for each character, which she then arranged together, slotting in the different parts so that Dexter and Athena were a family, and then moved Elizabeth and her entourage around them. The result is a finely constructed and deceptively simple snapshot of life, with layers that can be endlessly peeled away.
In a well-known review of The Children’s Bach, Don Anderson wrote:
“There are four perfect short novels in the English language. They are, in chronological order, Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach.”
I don’t know if I’d agree and call this book perfect, but there is something definitely masterful about the way the narrative strands overlap and weave together almost like a musical arrangement, and Garner’s close observation and carefully distilled language captures something strangely affecting. Almost every review I’ve read of this book has said that each time you read it, it’s a different experience – new details emerge, new threads and patterns become clear – and that’s something I’m very much looking forward to finding out for myself the next time I read it.