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The Children's Bach

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Athena and Dexter lead an enclosed family life, innocent of fashion and bound towards a disturbed child. Their comfortable rut is disrupted by the arrival of Elizabeth, a tough nut from Dexter's past. With her three charming, chaotic hangers-on, she draws the couple out into a world whose casual egotism they had barely dreamed of. How can they get home again?


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Athena and Dexter lead an enclosed family life, innocent of fashion and bound towards a disturbed child. Their comfortable rut is disrupted by the arrival of Elizabeth, a tough nut from Dexter's past. With her three charming, chaotic hangers-on, she draws the couple out into a world whose casual egotism they had barely dreamed of. How can they get home again?

30 review for The Children's Bach

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ben Winch

    I don’t think this is a great book but it’s interesting, and it suggests a strange cottage industry of fiction-writing in Australia in the eighties which I’m glad was encouraged. What’s good about it? The structure – free, gymnastic, skipping from surface to surface of each character like a stone over water. Also the world: Garner’s Melbourne (to me, like Soseki’s Tokyo) is more sensed than apprehended, and at its most vivid when Garner seems least to be describing it. And it’s short, only 90 pages – to I don’t think this is a great book but it’s interesting, and it suggests a strange cottage industry of fiction-writing in Australia in the eighties which I’m glad was encouraged. What’s good about it? The structure – free, gymnastic, skipping from surface to surface of each character like a stone over water. Also the world: Garner’s Melbourne (to me, like Soseki’s Tokyo) is more sensed than apprehended, and at its most vivid when Garner seems least to be describing it. And it’s short, only 90 pages – to me, the most exquisite length for a story. What’s bad? The symbolism, the overreach, the heightened sense of its own refinement. Bach, Berlioz, Mozart – all are namechecked, but the rock musician – a key character – doesn’t once name his own influences. In a way that’s good, since it heightens the timelessness, but every time a piece of “high art” was mentioned I cringed – too much like a flashing of credentials. So too the language: when it settles into its groove it’s effective, and it’s understandable in her second novel (her first, Monkey Grip, was a stark confessional piece) that Garner would want to test her power, but too much of this is sleight of hand. Ironically, the apparently rigorous editing may highlight this: the impression is of a loose transitional work corseted for professional ends; in a larger literary scene, with less focus on her, she may have felt more free to fail. And don’t get me started on the “local colour”: at one point a character sits up watching the national anthem at station close on late night TV, a National Geographic style flourish I find hard to reconcile with fiction, and upon which neither author nor character offered reflection. One last thing: at age 20 or so, when I first read this, I liked it. The atmosphere – the family like moles in their burrow. The fable quality. The clash of primitive and refined. I find its lapses embarrassing now, but I’m still rooting for its author, and I’d so rather have its minimal jagged-cum-hazy heightened realism than any number of slick post-Illywhacker “magic realist” tomes purporting to shine a light on Australia. Maybe what frustrates me in The Children’s Bach is that it so very nearly seems universal, but is held back by a sprinkling of Aussie tropes which I can’t help thinking are more for her perceived audience than for Garner. A small-scale but impressive piece of work.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Penni Russon

    This is a fantastic companion read for The Spare Room - similar themes and preoccupations at a different stage of life - at times the crossovers took my breath away. Reading Helen Garner's body of work is like reading a life, and her brutal, tender honesty allows an intensely intimate glimpse into the interior experience of a person.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Rebeccahowden

    This is a brief whisper of a story about two families whose lives become intertwined after a chance reunion of two former housemates. Dexter and Elizabeth lived together as uni students many years ago. Now, Dexter lives a 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 all become entangled in their lives, their various relationships are tested and unravelled with the same ultra-Bohemian f This is a brief whisper of a story about two families whose lives become intertwined after a chance reunion of two former housemates. Dexter and Elizabeth lived together as uni students many years ago. Now, Dexter lives a 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 all become entangled in their lives, their various relationships are tested and unravelled with the same ultra-Bohemian fluidity as in Monkey Grip. This book is porous, with holes where things are left unexplained, time gaps where events are left out, things slipping through all the time. The most interesting element is perhaps the chilling treatment of the disabled boy Billy, whom Dexter and Athena have given up on trying to get through to. Having accepted that “there’s nobody in there”, they’re just tolerating the burden of this non-child until they can “get rid of him.” It’s a pretty startling honesty, and the discomfort I felt while reading this saturated the whole novella with a feeling of uneasiness. There’s something I particularly love about the form of the short novel, and this one is a pretty excellent example of the depth and complexity that can be achieved in such a short space. Cross-posted at http://rebeccahowden.com.au/february/

  4. 4 out of 5

    Highlyeccentric

    Well. This was very well written - a masterful execution of wordcraft. It was also aggravatingly distant - Garner never gives you enough to really like or understand any of the characters, but just enough to make you curious. It's literary, self-consciously so, to the detriment of a sense of humanity. And what's with desolate literary stories about desolate suburban life, anyway? Gah. I can't see that Athena's plot arc (which seemed to be the 'main' one?) had any redemption in it. S Well. This was very well written - a masterful execution of wordcraft. It was also aggravatingly distant - Garner never gives you enough to really like or understand any of the characters, but just enough to make you curious. It's literary, self-consciously so, to the detriment of a sense of humanity. And what's with desolate literary stories about desolate suburban life, anyway? Gah. I can't see that Athena's plot arc (which seemed to be the 'main' one?) had any redemption in it. She came back dreaming of playing the piano, a metaphor for enjoying life, but *did* she? Did she play, did she enjoy it? Or did life just drag on? I don't think she gained much - certainly not any deeper connection with the members of her family - and everyone else suffered more. Which brings us to the extraordinary dehumanising treatment of Billy, a child with autism. I think, I *hope*, that his family's callous treatment of him and lack of desire to engage with him is intentionally symptomatic of their inability (and especially Athena's inability) to really see outside of their own heads and engage with anyone else at all. That'd make it 'disability as metaphor', which is overdone, but better than the alternative (Helen Garner actually thinks there's 'no one in there').

  5. 5 out of 5

    Astrid

    Well. On the front of this book is the tag line 'The classic contemporary Australian novel'. Right. The characters in this are all depressed suburbanites, dissatisfied with their existence or shocked by others' ways of life. The characters were all a little bit whingey. Having said that, Garner's descriptions put me right in there with the characters and the scenery grew around me as I read. But most of the time I just wanted to grab the characters by the shoulders and tell them to ge Well. On the front of this book is the tag line 'The classic contemporary Australian novel'. Right. The characters in this are all depressed suburbanites, dissatisfied with their existence or shocked by others' ways of life. The characters were all a little bit whingey. Having said that, Garner's descriptions put me right in there with the characters and the scenery grew around me as I read. But most of the time I just wanted to grab the characters by the shoulders and tell them to get over themselves.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Susie Anderson

    Helen Garner does it again. the depth in this novella is incredible for its length. she knows people and life very well

  7. 4 out of 5

    Alex West

    The book reads like Garner has spent a few years carrying around a notebook and making random observations of people and moments around her. She has then strung these together into a narrative and tried to give the observations post-hoc relevance. The result is a bunch of striking descriptions that do little to probe the complexities of the realities of domestic servitude, the book's apparent subject. The women in this story are all treated like anthropological exhibits, to be catalog The book reads like Garner has spent a few years carrying around a notebook and making random observations of people and moments around her. She has then strung these together into a narrative and tried to give the observations post-hoc relevance. The result is a bunch of striking descriptions that do little to probe the complexities of the realities of domestic servitude, the book's apparent subject. The women in this story are all treated like anthropological exhibits, to be catalogued and observed from the outside in order to make them fit the author's nihilistic world view. The treatment of a disabled child, whose point of view is assumed not to exist at all, is particularly telling. Any suggestion that the child (who is capable of walking around and expressing emotion) has a point of view is quickly derided by everyone as 'being Romantic about it'. When the babysitter suggests thinking about throwing him under a bus, the child's mother agrees that she's thought about doing it many times. This is presented a bravely honest observation. Uh... no. The primary carer of a moderately disabled child thinking about escaping the relentless burden of that work by throwing the child under a bus would be a bravely honest observation. But such thoughts do not exist in isolation. They are tangled in amongst love, complexities, guilt, not to mention social expectations a primary carer parent would feel in that situation. A person who secretly has fantasies of escape or admits them under pressure is one thing; a mother who casually agrees with a new babysitter about the desirabiliyt of throwing her child under a bus, and expresses no love or affection towards her own children at any point in the story is in a whole different category. Like, a diagnosable category. Instead of throwing the child under the bus, the characters rid themselves of a rabbit. The rabbit tries to cling to safety. They tip it out to die and walk away feeling lighter. No one in this book apparently feels love or compassion. No one thinks about the future or the consequences of their actions. Indeed, no one really thinks about anything. They just feel (but only neutral or miserable feelings), float, and do. The clue as to why the book is written this way might be in the book itself, where a character giving artistic advice says: "Look, I'll give you a tip. Go home and write it again. Take out the cliches. Everybody knows 'It always happens this way' or 'I went in with my eyes wide open'. Cut that stuff out. Just leave int he images. Know what I mean? You have to steer a line between what you understand and what you don't. Between cliche and the other thing. Make gaps. Don't chew on it. Don't explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest." As another reviewer said, this reads something like Garner's mission statement for the book. I suspect that Garner was able to think of many non-cliched ways to describe people being selfish and detached, but whatever observations on love and happiness she may have had were banal, and so (in the interests of art) she cut them. The result is a book in which the prose is vibrant and evocative, but also where every character appears to be a psychopath. #priorities I won't spoiler what happens, except to say that the simple plot of the book culminates in this line: "This was modern life, then, this seamless logic, this common sense, this silent tit-for-tat. This was what people did. He did not like it. He hated it. But he was in its moral universe now, and he could never go back." To be honest, I am so very sick of this narrative. It reminds me of reading Anne Rice at fifteen, and feeling so very grown up that my understanding of morality could transcend conventional bounds, and the preachy simplistic rules we were given as children. The gist of the narrative, for those who are unfamiliar, is that at some point everyone realises that the world's pretty shallow and awful, and everyone in it is shallow and awful, and freed of that terrible baggage, they now enter a world where hurting people doesn't really matter any more. This is the well-developed morality of the teenager who, having realised that Disney presents a distortion and their parents are fallible, assumes society knows nothing and stomps off to their room, leaving everyone else to do the dishes for them. Responsible people are a total buzz-kill. Unlike a man-o-sphere rant, Garner's writing is not bitter or angry, but it is joyless. There is much name-dropping of Educated Cultural References, but not in a way that probes into them or connects them to anything. Rather, the name-dropping is reminiscent of the narrator in American Psycho, whose monologue is peppered with references to designer labels because these are cobbled together to form the facade of a 'successful Wall Street trader', to show how this role is a performative one, the realisation of a social expectation, and such markers of success tell us little about what kind of human being the person really is. In The Children's Bach, it is not a character but Garner herself who litters her observations with such references. The point of view moves fluidly in and out of characters' heads so that their personalities blur and their subjective perspectives are drowned beneath Garner's own detached perspective. This feels less self-aware than self-righteous. Perhaps when this book was written in 1984, it was feminist simply to focus on a small-scale domestic drama in this way. Perhaps... but to what end? Female empowerment and sexual liberation? For a novel about female sexual empowerment, the women appear to get little to nothing out of sex. Sex acts and sexual behaviour are not described, but are implied to be for the benefit of men, with the women getting no apparent pleasure out of them. But I suppose this logically flows from the fact that-like robots-none of the women appear to want anything, or aspire to anything. The characters appear to sleep with each other out of sheer boredom. #girlpower The simplistic choice Athena makes in this story is one shorn of any real dilemma that most real women would have in that situation, and accordingly has little to say about what binds women into these family structures that restrict their choices. Love and attachment play a pivotal role in those structures, so Garner's artistic omissions fundamentally undermine any kind of coherent feminist critique of Athena's situation. I read this book because it was chosen for a queer / feminist book club. It's not queer, so I assume it was chosen as a 'feminist' pick. This was a mystery because it did not seem particularly feminist, either. 5 stars for the prose 1 star for content and meaning (A slightly different version of this review that focuses more on what I took away from it in terms of writing advice appears on my blog: www.compulsivewriter.net).

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lukasz Pruski

    "and Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!" Novellas and short novels are my favorite literary forms so when I came across a literary critic's review in which he ranks Helen Garner's "The Children's Bach" (1984) among the "four perfect short novels in the English language" I just had to run to the libra"and "and Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!" Novellas and short novels are my favorite literary forms so when I came across a literary critic's review in which he ranks Helen Garner's "The Children's Bach" (1984) among the "four perfect short novels in the English language" I just had to run to the library. And now that I have finished reading this wonderfully skinny (the covers are thicker than all 95 pages together) literary gem, I can understand Don Anderson, the Australian critic, who made that categorical statement. While I do not think it is a perfect novel, it is indeed a very good book, and Ms. Garner's literary craft is of the highest caliber. Dexter and Athena Fox are an early-middle-age married couple living a comfortable and apparently happy life - loving and being friends with each other - raising their two sons, one of whom, Billy, is developmentally disabled. One day Dexter runs into Elizabeth, a woman he knew when they were students together and whom he has not seen for almost 20 years. Elizabeth's much younger sister, 17-year-old Vicki, apparently in need of a mother figure, moves into the Foxes' house to be close to Athena. Elizabeth still keeps in touch with her ex-lover, Phillip, a popular musician who's taking care of his 12-year-old daughter Poppy. They all become frequent guests at the Foxes, which leads to a major disruption of Athena and Dexter's routine. The synopsis sounds like a schmaltzy melodrama type of plot, but the truly terrific writing makes the whole difference. Ms. Garner has mastered the most important skill of a writer - the difficult skill of deleting as much text as possible. She could have churned out a standard 400-page bestseller, full of the usual vapid fluff, but she went for quality instead and removed everything non-essential from the book. What remained is indeed close to perfect. I was re-reading many stunning fragments of prose several times to savor the superb writing craft of the author. The Children's Bach is first and foremost about Athena. Until Dexter's random meeting the trajectory of her life had been straight and clear - almost on autopilot - defined by the need to be there for Dexter and the family. Athena has never wondered "what if" and when she suddenly finds that question staring her in the face, she takes a tentative step into the unknown. The reader has a chance to learn about the characters through their music: Dexter sings arias from operas, Athena practices Bach's preludes, Phillip plays guitar in a rock band. And Billy's music - most dramatically - consists of the steady sound patterns, the rhythms of "the rushes and pauses of the swing" that soothe him during his unpredictable attacks. Athena's music is the most difficult - "Bach is never simple, but that is one reason why we should all try to master him" - but is it not better to try and fail rather than to comfortably follow the routine. Or is it? Four and a quarter stars.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Shane

    It may be unfair to compare this early novella with The Spare Room (2008), written more than two decades later. Yet that heart-wrenching short novel by Garner at the height of her powers was what sparked my interest in her earlier fiction. She has a reputation for shaping diaristic material, sometimes to stunning effect, as in her non-fiction masterpiece Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004). But honed style and fresh, realist detail aside, The Children’s Bach and The Spare Room could hardly be more different. On It may be unfair to compare this early novella with The Spare Room (2008), written more than two decades later. Yet that heart-wrenching short novel by Garner at the height of her powers was what sparked my interest in her earlier fiction. She has a reputation for shaping diaristic material, sometimes to stunning effect, as in her non-fiction masterpiece Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004). But honed style and fresh, realist detail aside, The Children’s Bach and The Spare Room could hardly be more different. One deals with midlife issues, family and male-female relationships, the other with a grandma nursing an old friend through terminal cancer. The Children’s Bach is as close as Garner gets to a work of imagination. And this, plus constant shifts of perspective within the third-person point of view (not Garner’s usual mode), may account for the story’s diffuseness. Emotional intensity is one of Garner’s strengths, well served by her characteristic use of first person (which suits her rare honesty as a journalist). So, in The Children’s Bach, the absence of a point-of-view character to focus the narrative – combined with and contributing to a lack of dramatic tension – led me to expect more substance re the themes and ideas. But maybe I simply came to this book 30 years too late. Maybe it needs to be read in the context of mid-’80s feminism and/or postmodern experimentation. Or maybe I’m just too hard on Oz writers. But unlike The Great Gatsby, The Children’s Bach (which one Oz critic, Don Anderson, also rates as one of ‘four perfect short novels in the English language’) seems to me to have dated. The random unsignalled shifts from reality to a character’s brief fantasy seem gimmicky. And the choice of which character’s head to enter at any point often seems arbitrary. (Why make us privy to the thoughts of Dexter’s dad, a minor character, yet not take us inside the more pivotal retarded child’s mind?) To me the book reads like an improvisation; like Garner made up the plot (if you could call it that) as she went along: strikingly virtuosic yet mostly without the power of her recent, world-class works.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Philippa

    Have been wanting to read this for years and years, and finally found a copy in a secondhand store in Hobart while back home for Christmas :) I wanted so much to love this book and while I liked it and found it very readable, I didn't love it. Perhaps this is what happens when you read a writer's latest work first, and then go back to their earlier work. The seeds of The Spare Room were definitely planted, but that 2008 novel is nothing short of an understated masterpiece. This one is Have been wanting to read this for years and years, and finally found a copy in a secondhand store in Hobart while back home for Christmas :) I wanted so much to love this book and while I liked it and found it very readable, I didn't love it. Perhaps this is what happens when you read a writer's latest work first, and then go back to their earlier work. The seeds of The Spare Room were definitely planted, but that 2008 novel is nothing short of an understated masterpiece. This one is well paced, but the urgency wasn't quite there for me, and the characters weren't as likeable. What kept me turning the pages was Garner's exquisite prose, which is always a pleasure to read, the intimate details about surprisingly minor characters, and the evocation of Melbourne in the 1980s, the Italian bar-cafes, the overgrown gardens.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Adrian P

    'Hang on,' said Philip. 'Excuse me, Athena. Listen. I like your song. Look, I'll give you a tip. Go home and write it again. Take out the cliches. Everybody knows "It always happens this way" or "I went in with my eyes wide open". Cut that stuff out. Just leave in the images. Know what I mean? You have to steer a line between cliche and the other thing. Make gaps. Don't chew on it. Don't explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.'

  12. 5 out of 5

    Pallida

    Oh hi, Helen! Where have you been all my life? I'm in the heady splendour of new love, early allegiance, back catalogue. I'm going to read everything you've ever written. X

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    On the cover of my copy of The Spare Room is an endorsement from Peter Carey: “The perfect novel.” I don’t know if he’s read The Children’s Bach but if he has I wonder if he’d describe it as the perfect novella; the Australian critic Don Anderson certainly thought it was. Others too have expressed as much although perhaps not so succinctly. I read The Children’s Bach over two days, two days when I had a headache and my advice to anyone else with a similar headache—not quite a migraine but definitely sickeni On the cover of my copy of The Spare Room is an endorsement from Peter Carey: “The perfect novel.” I don’t know if he’s read The Children’s Bach but if he has I wonder if he’d describe it as the perfect novella; the Australian critic Don Anderson certainly thought it was. Others too have expressed as much although perhaps not so succinctly. I read The Children’s Bach over two days, two days when I had a headache and my advice to anyone else with a similar headache—not quite a migraine but definitely sickening—is: Don’t try to read The Children’s Bach. It might be a short book but it requires concentration. You can’t afford to skip lines because she doesn’t repeat herself. Descriptions, even details, are scarce, just enough to guide you in the right direction. For example, the book opens with someone called Dexter sticking a photograph on the kitchen wall. The photo is described in some detail; Dexter is not. The next section—there are no chapters here, merely asterisks denoting major breaks—opens with him talking to an unnamed person. It seems they’re walking, he “with a bandy, rapid gait.” It turns out the two of them do this routinely “each night in the dark” and he often whistles whilst walking. His companion we discover at the end of the first paragraph is someone called Athena, who we learn three paragraphs later, loves him and lives with him. Nothing to suggest how old they are but as Dexter tells Athena about an encounter with “a senile know-all” he at least is not old or at least considers himself not old. Athena, it seems, plays the piano, Bartok’s Mikrokosmos or the easiest of Bach’s Small Preludes, and inexpertly. The next section opens with what feels like genuine exposition:How strange it is that in a city the size of Melbourne it is possible for two people who have lived almost as sister and brother for five years as students to move away from each other without even saying goodbye, to conduct the ordinary business of their lives within a couple of miles of each other’s daily rounds, and yet never to cross each other’s paths. To marry, to have children; to fail at one thing and to take up another, to drink and dance in public places, to buy food in supermarkets and petrol at service stations, to read of the same murders in the same newspapers, to shiver in the same cold mornings, and yet never to bump into each other. Eighteen, twenty years may pass! How strange! The students turn out to be Dexter and someone called Elizabeth. Quick sum: If they spent five years as students and haven’t seen each other for some twenty years and assuming they went to uni… ‘[D]on’t call it uni. Only people who’ve never been there call it that’… Sorry, Elizabeth… Assuming it’s the same as here in the UK and they were eighteen when they left secondary school then that would make them somewhere in their early forties. And, yes, this is very much a fortysomething novella. Still no idea what year this is or even the decade (it turns out it’s the eighties) but we learn that Elizabeth and Dexter “had never been in love” although had he been willing—or had at least turned up when Elizabeth was at her most… available—then they could at least have been lovers. Perhaps for the best he’d decided to play cricket that afternoon. The story moves on and Dexter and Athena get left behind. We learn that Elizabeth has a sister—Vicki, seventeen—and that there’s twenty years between them—their mother died giving birth to her—which would make Elizabeth thirty-seven. Doesn’t quite add up if she’s ages with Dexter. No matter. Vicki calls and asks to come and stay with her sister. No mention of a dad or where she is other than it’s a different time zone, nine hours later in the day. Someone called Philip fails to turn up with the car and so Elizabeth has to bus it to the airport to collect her sister. There she runs into Dexter who calls her ‘Morty’—we never learn why—and it looks like the story’s started. There’s really not much of a story and by ‘story’ I mean plot. Dexter and Elizabeth reconnect but they don’t start a torrid affair or anything. Vicki doesn’t want to stay with her sister because her sister’s place because it’s basically just one huge room—the bath’s behind a partition—and not designed with privacy in mind. She ends up with Dexter and Athena and their two kids, Billy, who’s mentally disabled (‘I’m afraid Billy’s not quite…’), and Arthur. Philip we finally learn is Elizabeth’s boyfriend. He plays in a band and had a daughter called Poppy who’s just about to go to high school which would make her eleven or twelve. Finally we have all the players. But whose story is this? As with all ensembles it’s hard to resist picking one—I suppose for most it would be Athena—but I’m not sure any one jumps out for me; at times I even lost track of who the “she” I was reading about was. The men I didn’t have much time for but then I’m not sure I was supposed to. Athena is trapped in domesticity but Elizabeth’s lifestyle’s not all rock and roll. I think perhaps I found Vicki the most interesting because she’s one step removed from everyone; Poppy is too but she doesn’t have the opportunities for interactions Vicki does. From all accounts (see this interview from 1986) the novella began its life as a series of notebooks:I had all these observations in notes and I typed them up on separate pieces of paper and filed them into five sections, each a different character. In the process of weaving these notes together—hard not to think of counterpoint since Bach’s shadow looms over the text—Garner came to realise she “wanted to write about some sisters who have some kind of upheaval and can survive it, maybe.” It’s a very raw book and if Athena is the heroine of the piece her honesty with regards to her feelings for her son Billy makes her hard to love:      “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.” […]        ‘Why won’t he ever look at me?’ [asked Dexter]        ‘Don’t bother to get romantic,’ said Athena. ‘There’s nobody in there.’ […]        ‘How do you bear it?’ [Elizabeth] said.        ‘I’ve abandoned him, in my heart,’ said Athena. ‘It’s work. I’m just hanging on till we can get rid of him.’        ‘Get rid of him?’ said Elizabeth.       Athena’s small, calm smile did not alter. ‘The thought of it,’ she said in her civilised voice, ‘the very thought of it is like a dark cloud rolling away.’ In her interview Garner said, “I wanted there to be an extra reason the wife couldn’t just leave. I put that little boy in there with something wrong with him so that she’d have a double responsibility.” The book doesn’t really have a climax so much as a number of turning points. But that’s life. Do I turn left or right? Do I go home or keep on driving? The problem with Goodreads is its ranking are based on how much we like a book. Not every book is likeable or intended to be likeable. So I can’t really say that I liked this book even though I've given it three stars and it probably deserves four. I really didn’t have much time for any of the major players and I probably wouldn’t have much time for Poppy or Arthur either once they grew up and they followed in their parents’ footsteps. Where the book succeeds for me is that it made me think. It’s what I look for in a book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Tom O’Connell

    The Children’s Bach is the kind of book I wish I’d written. It’s taut, self-assured and barrels along without an inch of hand-holding. Although I admit to getting uncomfortably lost during the first ten or so pages, everything clicked once I settled into its rhythm. In this book, the lives of four grownups and three children intersect in unexpected ways. One side represents morals, ideals, naivety, family, structure; the other: jadedness, hedonism, independence, freedom. Both have val The Children’s Bach is the kind of book I wish I’d written. It’s taut, self-assured and barrels along without an inch of hand-holding. Although I admit to getting uncomfortably lost during the first ten or so pages, everything clicked once I settled into its rhythm. In this book, the lives of four grownups and three children intersect in unexpected ways. One side represents morals, ideals, naivety, family, structure; the other: jadedness, hedonism, independence, freedom. Both have valuable lessons to teach the other, and seeing these unfold is a treat. Every character here is strong and complex. They each have light and shade, and everyone – even the ‘villain’ of the piece – is capable of winning our respect in one breath and letting us down in another. I could flail about attempting to intellectualise what it was that made this novella so powerful. But the important thing – what I really hope to impart – is that it somehow got me to lower my guard and care. It made me feel for, and alongside, its characters. This, to me, is the intangible measure of a great book. On a technical front, though, The Children’s Bach is an absolute powerhouse. Garner’s prose is consistently precise and effortlessly stylish. Amazingly, the dizzying insights never compromise the pacing. I actually feel I’ll have to read it again sometime just to sit back and appreciate the writing (as it was, I was so invested in her characters that I devoured it like a hungry swine). Garner authentically recreates Melbourne’s suburbs, giving them all the spirit and grit they deserve. Her focus is on the minutiae, and it’s when these tiny details accumulate and weave together that our Australian culture is showcased, with all of its darkness and eccentricities. Music is, as the title suggests, a thematic binding between these characters. Garner explores the ways in which music punctuates and enriches our lives. It is embedded in us, whether we’re aficionados, performers, or casual listeners. Like the way music can inform a memory, I was fascinated by this undercurrent. The last thing I’ll mention – and I alluded to this earlier – is the way Garner’s narrative powers along without regard for the reader. When each scene ends, the reader is forced to reorient themselves in a new situation, in the headspace of a new character, in a new time or place. There are no polite explanations; it can take as long as a page to pick up the context of the new scene. Some scenes even feature multiple characters, with the POV shifting of its own accord. It really shouldn’t work, but it does. Characters are introduced as vague pronouns. You might assume, based on their actions, that ‘she’ is one character acting normally, only to discover it’s another doing something wildly outside their normal parameters. This lends The Children’s Bach a sense of mystery. For a literary novel, this one’s a real page-turner. Some may find this determination to upend the reader frustrating, and I suppose that criticism would be valid. I found it bold, thrilling; we are constantly headed somewhere new and exciting! There are no boring, fluffy, ‘middle bits’, and picking up a new scene’s context is never more difficult than it needs to be. Frankly, it’s refreshing not being pandered to. Garner doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence. She says, ‘Keep up, or get out!’ and the book is so much better for it.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Tom Buchanan

    This was great! For all the parts where they go see scuzzy bands play I kept picturing that movie "Dogs in Space". Question, though: what's the deal with the bathroom being in the backyard? This book came out in '84. Is that an Australian thing?

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rachelle Arkin

    2.5 stars. Helen Garner is an excellent writer but the characters she created in this work act in ways that are hard to fathom. The dynamics between the two families in this book become seriously entwined quickly in such a way that does not seem quite real to me. Having said that, Ms. Garner drew me into their orbit and made me wonder what would happen to them. At the same time, the denouement was not satisfying to me.

  17. 4 out of 5

    EliseCaldwell

    Garner draws the reader into the folds of modern Australian life in this short but beautiful novel. At the centre of the story is the Baker Street family — Dexter, Athena and their two children — a family that seems tightly bound to one another and almost idyllic in their love and easy companionship. The characters of Dexter and Athena walk the streets of Carlton with Dexter singing and Athena laughing and the picture of their lives together is one of happiness, warmth and comfort. Garner descri Garner draws the reader into the folds of modern Australian life in this short but beautiful novel. At the centre of the story is the Baker Street family — Dexter, Athena and their two children — a family that seems tightly bound to one another and almost idyllic in their love and easy companionship. The characters of Dexter and Athena walk the streets of Carlton with Dexter singing and Athena laughing and the picture of their lives together is one of happiness, warmth and comfort. Garner describes them simply as best friends who love each other. And then by chance the world of Baker Street is expanded by the arrival of Philip, Poppy, Elizabeth and Vicki who challenge and change the foundations of Dexter and Athena's relationship and the lives of the family. Through the introduction of these outsiders, Garner explores, with heartbreaking simplicity, the underlying frustration, loneliness, longing and disappointment suffered by her protagonists as a result of their relationships with one another and their inability to find satisfaction in any aspect of their lives. This appraisal of modern life and relationships lies at the core of the novel but Garner writes with sympathy for and without judgement of the predicaments in which her characters find themselves. It is not a happy story but an entirely human one about people who love each but who still search for more, betray and disappoint one another and dream of a life beyond that which they are living. It is wonderful not only for this reflection on the human experience and its endless complexities but for the breathtakingly beautiful writing and the vivid portrait Garner paints of her beloved Carlton. It's a reading experience both heartbreaking and heart warming that everyone should have.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kris McCracken

    I’ll confess that I have long held reservations about Helen Garner that have nothing to do with her work as a novelist. I think that her commentary on the Ormand College affair [see The First Stone] both unconvincing and entirely wrongheaded. However, I will not be detoured into an extended exploration of the generational culture wars within the Australian feminist movement! To the book! Like I said, I don’t like Garner, but I have been feeling guilty about not reading enough Australi I’ll confess that I have long held reservations about Helen Garner that have nothing to do with her work as a novelist. I think that her commentary on the Ormand College affair [see The First Stone] both unconvincing and entirely wrongheaded. However, I will not be detoured into an extended exploration of the generational culture wars within the Australian feminist movement! To the book! Like I said, I don’t like Garner, but I have been feeling guilty about not reading enough Australian fiction, and I also thought that I needed to read some more female authors, as I have decided give her a go. Thus, I get to The Children's Bach, her third book published in 1984 to some critical acclaim. Set in inner-suburban Melbourne in the early/mid-1980s, the novel revolves around a bohemian couple, Athena and Dexter with their two sons, one of whom is severely autistic. Into their life intrudes Elizabeth, an independent feminist of some renown from Dexter's past. With Elizabeth come her teenage sister, Vicki, and her casual lover – and staple of the local rock music scene – Philip, and his prepubescent daughter, Poppy. Through this plot device, Garner can explore the collision of different worlds of ideas and values and test the foundations of human relationships. It does a good job recording the many effects of this collision of values, and the traumatic consequences of clashing social mores and beliefs (particularly to those unable or unwilling to yield to change). The novel is also a striking portrait of a specific time and place in Australian life, which despite being not so long ago seems very far away. Yet again another quite depressing read, but a worthwhile one. I can happily recommend this to anyone.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Angie

    The writing was great, and there were many moments of truth scattered within, and the characters were almost well drawn... But the story just kind of ended without a satisfying resolution. Now I get that those who write litfic consider themselves above the reproach of us mere mortals, but really.... This was so vaguely written that I felt like I was watching a movie on a tiny tv twenty metres away whilst at the same time trying to do calculus - I was only getting incomplete glimpses of each scen The writing was great, and there were many moments of truth scattered within, and the characters were almost well drawn... But the story just kind of ended without a satisfying resolution. Now I get that those who write litfic consider themselves above the reproach of us mere mortals, but really.... This was so vaguely written that I felt like I was watching a movie on a tiny tv twenty metres away whilst at the same time trying to do calculus - I was only getting incomplete glimpses of each scene, and missing others entirely, and at the end, I somehow wound up missing the denouement. Maybe I was in the toilet at the time, who knows? It also seemed that a lot of the scenes in this book were included simply because Helen couldn't bear to throw away the pretty descriptions she'd come up with rather than from any real necessity. In any case, I enjoyed how short this was. I also enjoyed the references to Melbourne in it, although it was the side of Melbourne I don't really care about. Also, Elizabeth was such a better character than Athena, yet somehow we got stuck with the latter who, quite frankly, has the personality of a soiled dishcloth. Oh well.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Initially NO

    A very upsetting book, if you have known a child/adult who has had learning difficulties, particularly from womb trauma. Difficulties like sensory dysphoria, that get the diagnosis of 'autism' are the focus of this book's hate-crime. The copy of this book that I read, had been taken off a Monash University library shelf and donated to an op-shop. There were reasons for its removal, this book is a horribly derogatory, insensitive and ugly account of people who 'hate crime' a child with learning d A very upsetting book, if you have known a child/adult who has had learning difficulties, particularly from womb trauma. Difficulties like sensory dysphoria, that get the diagnosis of 'autism' are the focus of this book's hate-crime. The copy of this book that I read, had been taken off a Monash University library shelf and donated to an op-shop. There were reasons for its removal, this book is a horribly derogatory, insensitive and ugly account of people who 'hate crime' a child with learning difficulties, and the author offers no respite or opinion on this, but allows the characters in the novel free-reign to speak their ugly opinions on wanting to kill this defenceless child. All that said, Helen Garner is flawless at the mechanics of writing a story. She creates scenes and characters, devises plots, extremely well. This book just happens to be ethically awful. It offends anyone with sense.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lydia

    Ah, Helen Garner. How I love thee. Let me count the ways. ... but genuinely, I do love Helen Garner. I love the way she constructs her characters, or, rather, how she doesn't. When I read any of her works, there are so many layers, yet so few details. The characters aren't quite fully-formed, like objects underwater, distorted and secretive. And Garner will reveal their purpose, slowly, piece by piece, page by page, word by word. In this par Ah, Helen Garner. How I love thee. Let me count the ways. ... but genuinely, I do love Helen Garner. I love the way she constructs her characters, or, rather, how she doesn't. When I read any of her works, there are so many layers, yet so few details. The characters aren't quite fully-formed, like objects underwater, distorted and secretive. And Garner will reveal their purpose, slowly, piece by piece, page by page, word by word. In this particular book, she writes about a mundane, domestic chapter in family's life, and the upheavals around it, and yet - there's nothing mundane about it. What's more, she's an Australian author, and sometimes she writes a street or an address that I know, and her world becomes all the more concrete. Her writing is like an ocean - pulled by the moon's invisible strings. It's natural, rhythmic, fluid. I only wish she'd write more.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sonja

    I looove the way the author writes and I was really liking Athena and Vicki in the beginning ... but then there was one section where the parents were talking rather harshly about their disabled child that felt cruel and out-of-character and kind of ruined the book for me! I don't know if maybe I just didn't get it but yeah. Also, there were times when I had to completely re-read passages because they just did. not. make. sense. Like at one point someone is hugging someone else then in the very I looove the way the author writes and I was really liking Athena and Vicki in the beginning ... but then there was one section where the parents were talking rather harshly about their disabled child that felt cruel and out-of-character and kind of ruined the book for me! I don't know if maybe I just didn't get it but yeah. Also, there were times when I had to completely re-read passages because they just did. not. make. sense. Like at one point someone is hugging someone else then in the very next sentence that person is suddenly laying limp over their shoulder, but they hadn't even moved?? haha

  23. 4 out of 5

    Calzean

    This novella is about a relatively normal couple (Athena and Dexter) who have two boys, one with a mental handicap. They are happy with their lot. The husband meets an old university girlfriend and she re-enters his life, bringing with her a younger sister and a part-time boyfriend who is a musician and a lady hunter. Athena has a fling with the musician. Great use of language by a novelist of great ability. But I felt the book was a bit shallow with it’s plot lines. So what, I though This novella is about a relatively normal couple (Athena and Dexter) who have two boys, one with a mental handicap. They are happy with their lot. The husband meets an old university girlfriend and she re-enters his life, bringing with her a younger sister and a part-time boyfriend who is a musician and a lady hunter. Athena has a fling with the musician. Great use of language by a novelist of great ability. But I felt the book was a bit shallow with it’s plot lines. So what, I thought at then end.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Maja

    this is what happens when the safety of routine becomes so banal, that you naively decide to integrate reckless disregard into your morale. we are all prone to carelessness at times, lured in by cataclysmic adventures and their possibilities. in retrospect, acting hastily on these possibilities usually ends in brooding over what could have or would have or wouldn't have happened if we did this or didn't do that. the dynamics of an opera are reflections of experience. we all need a crescendo. ~ku this is what happens when the safety of routine becomes so banal, that you naively decide to integrate reckless disregard into your morale. we are all prone to carelessness at times, lured in by cataclysmic adventures and their possibilities. in retrospect, acting hastily on these possibilities usually ends in brooding over what could have or would have or wouldn't have happened if we did this or didn't do that. the dynamics of an opera are reflections of experience. we all need a crescendo. ~kudos to garner for intermittently sprinkling vivacious wit throughout each segment of events.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    I can't say I loved this book but it definitely drew me in. I enjoyed this one a lot more than Monkey Grip as the characters in this were more interesting and had a unique relationship. The characters seemed to be a bit more mature(by no means settled) and less point of view made it less repetitive than her previous novel (a lot shorter lengthwise too). Garner's characters are well drawn and the pace of the novel is well done. There is no doubt that she is a great writer but there is something a I can't say I loved this book but it definitely drew me in. I enjoyed this one a lot more than Monkey Grip as the characters in this were more interesting and had a unique relationship. The characters seemed to be a bit more mature(by no means settled) and less point of view made it less repetitive than her previous novel (a lot shorter lengthwise too). Garner's characters are well drawn and the pace of the novel is well done. There is no doubt that she is a great writer but there is something about her tone(perhaps too dry) that puts me off...

  26. 5 out of 5

    Alex

    tl;dr: this is exactly the sort of book you think about when you hear "modern Australian literature" Other impressions: - Lovely and atmospheric, somehow refreshing and minimalist despite its rich descriptions - At the same time it has that pretentious ~literary feel (you know the one) - Nice to read something set in Melbourne - For whatever reason it didn't compel me -- different strokes for different folks, etc - I decided to read this based on some half-rem tl;dr: this is exactly the sort of book you think about when you hear "modern Australian literature" Other impressions: - Lovely and atmospheric, somehow refreshing and minimalist despite its rich descriptions - At the same time it has that pretentious ~literary feel (you know the one) - Nice to read something set in Melbourne - For whatever reason it didn't compel me -- different strokes for different folks, etc - I decided to read this based on some half-remembered extract I fell upon in high school; now I have closure.

  27. 4 out of 5

    S'hi

    Through musical strains, Garner draws the themes of different heartbeats with their desires and dreams altering to different harmonies or discordant clamour. People change us through the openings we allow for them in our lives. A simple suburban family is more vulnerable than it first appears, when old friends reconnect. A study in variations upon a theme, scenes and characters shift to draw out each other’s actions and perspectives so no one of them will be the same again.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lauredhel

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Not giving this a star rating. As I read this book, I thought to myself "This is well-written", and at the same time, I hated hated hated it. Maybe I'm just not cut out for stifling, bleak suburban fiction after so much YA and genre reading? Who knows. WARNING for some really horrific ableism, including dehumanising, disgust-filled description of a child with autism, and fantasies of homicide of a PWD.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Catherine Davison

    I just didn't like it, the writing style wasn't cohesive enough for me. While I really appreciated some of her observations and could immediately relate to her descriptions of a visit to Allens House of Music and tram rides and inner city suburban activities, there simply wasn't enough of a narrative arc. It didn't really go anywhere.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tina

    Helen Garner is brilliant. She explains her own style perfectly in this line from one of the main characters of the novel Philip, who is advising a young songwriter - ‘Take out the clichés … Just leave in the images … Make gaps … Don’t explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.’ This is a dense and beautiful rhapsody. Highly recommend.

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