A Writing Life
Helen Garner and Her Work
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‘This is literary critique and biography at its finest. Australian Financial Review
Helen Garner is one of Australia’s most important and most admired writers. She is revered for her fearless honesty in the pursuit of her craft.
But Garner also courts controversy, not least because she refuses to be constrained by the rules of literary form. She has never been afraid to write herself into her nonfiction, and many of her own experiences help to shape her fiction. But who is the ‘I’ in Helen Garner’s work?
Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life is the first full-length study of Garner’s forty years of work, a literary portrait that maps all of her books against the different stages of her life.
Brennan has had access to previously unavailable papers in Garner’s archive, and she provides a lively and rigorous reading of the books, journals and correspondence of one of Australia’s most beloved women of letters.
Dr Bernadette Brennan is an academic and researcher in contemporary Australian writing, literature and ethics. She is the author of a number of publications, including a monograph on Brian Castro and two edited collections: Just Words?: Australian Authors Writing for Justice (UQP 2008), and Ethical Investigations: Essays on Australian Literature and Poetics (Vagabond 2008). She lives in Sydney.
Garner has always been a boundary-crosser. Refusing the constrictions of literary genre she has sought to write across and craft her own versions of them. She readily admits to a ‘me’ character in all her work. That character is a carefully constructed self. In her fiction, she unsettles her readers’ assumptions about protagonists by creating ‘Helen’ characters, most blatantly in ‘Little Helen’s Sunday Afternoon’, ‘Habe Dank’ and The Spare Room. In so doing, she demonstrates the complexity of a constructed fictional self.
‘Billed as “the first full-length study of Garner’s 40 years of work, a literary portrait that maps all of her books against the different stages of her life”. Well, who wouldn’t want to read that?’ Australian
‘Bernadette Brennan’s ingenious A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, which gets around the subject’s resistance to biography by viewing her life through her writing, as Garner herself does.’ Susan Wyndham, Best Books of 2017, Australian Book Review
‘Brennan’s depiction of Garner’s fearless approach to the very difficult subjects of The First Stone, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief is beautifully modulated and a real triumph. She has captured and interpreted an important writer and her work beautifully.’ Books + Publishing
‘Brennan has produced a literary portrait that more than does its subject justice. It is not a biography; Garner was quite clear that she didn’t want that, but because Garner is so often present in her own writing, it’s inevitable that her life is reflected in the discussion of her works. This helps put her works in context, and a picture emerges of an amazing writer…Bernadette Brennan has done us all a great favour in delivering this immensely enjoyable book.’ Mark Rubbo, Readings
‘Brennan is an astute and sensitive reader of Garner’s work.’ Big Issue
‘The writing is clear, measured, and graceful throughout…The readings of the fiction are astute and straightforward, tracing Garner’s development from the allegedly unstructured Monkey Grip, which in fact offers a formal equivalent to the push-me pull-you vagaries of love and junk, through the perfection of The Children’s Bach and the experiments in voice and style in Postcards from Surfers, to the late-style bareness and hardness of The Spare Room.’ Sydney Morning Herald
'This book offers an illuminating discussion of Garner’s boundary crossing work. Its own magic lies in bringing elements of memoir and criticism into an absorbing conversation that begins with a rich contextualisation of Garner’s work, and extends into the literary and ethical questions with which Brennan has long been concerned.’Australian
‘Absorbing, informative and engaging read.’ Conversation
‘Brennan examines both assumptions by tracing Garner’s steps to becoming a full-time writer in a style that is both thoughtful and readable.’ Australian Book Review
‘Bernadette Brennan brings a calm eye and an easy grace to her descriptions of Garner’s life, literature and impact on Australia’s cultural and socio-political landscape…She draws a more complex picture of one of our best known and most skilled writers than we’ve enjoyed in a full-length volume before.’ A Bigger Brighter World
‘Probably my favourite book so far [this year]. A marvellous tribute to one of Australia’s great writers.’ Mark Rubbo, The Best Books We’ve Read This Year (So Far) 2017, Readings
‘Bernadette Brennan’s first full-length study of Helen Garner’s work, A Writing Life, has inspired me to pile Garner’s books on my bedside table, and to look at each of them again with fresh eyes.’ The Best Books We’ve Read This Year (So Far) 2017, Readings
‘A remarkably shrewd study of Garner’s work knitted with a tender representation of her personal life.’ Mascara Literary Review
‘Brennan performs a kind of call for literature, its criticism as well as creation.’ Sydney Review of Books
‘You might also include academic Bernadette Brennan’s superb literary portrait of Garner, A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, which combines a close analysis of Garner’s work with illuminating insights into her life. Garner gave Brennan unprecedented access to her archives and spent long hours in conversation with her. It shows.’ Sydney Morning Herald, Can’t-Put-Down Titles for Summer
‘A book for those who want to understand Garner’s work more. But, it is also a book which makes clear the significant contribution Garner has made to Australian literature. And, in doing that, it is itself a significant book.’ Whispering Gums