1984 – the children’s bach ~ helen garner

What’s left to write about Helen Garner’s stunning The Children’s Bach that hasn’t already been written by writers infinitely more eloquent than myself?

Although I can’t imagine I have anything to contribute, the urge to write about this intricate little novel remains. Is it pure egotism that compels me to speak my piece, regardless? Or is it because that’s what critics are meant to do?

This is only my second review for the Australian Women Writers project. Yes, I know. I intended to write one AWW review per month. I have four books sitting on my desk right now, waiting my attention.

I’ll be writing a series of brief reviews to help me get my schedule back on track. It’s something new for me – let me know what you think.

It’s probably best not to think of this as a proper review. Instead, consider this just a few of my thoughts about The Children’s Bach.

The Children’s Bach

by Helen Garner // Published in 1984


“Just as the sky turned green she passed the conservatorium, white as an ocean liner, with its two high palm trees flying like flags. She stopped on the slope of the lawn and stared up at the lighted first-floor windows: they were open and three students, each in a separate room, were practicing: a piano, a violin, a clarinet. The threads of melody, never meant to combine, mingled and made a pleasant, meaningless discord.” (p. 89)

I’ve read Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach twice. The first time was more than a decade ago. Both times, the paragraph I’ve quoted above stopped me in my tracks.

It’s here, towards the end of Garner’s 96-page masterpiece that the novel’s subtlest preoccupations float to the surface. It’s one of those uncanny moments of recognition: Garner puts us, her reader, in the same position as Athena, her character, standing in front of the conservatorium. We watch from the outside as the characters of The Children’s Bach sing their very different songs. Athena sits awkwardly at the piano in her kitchen, Billy hums his unknowable anthem to himself on the swing set, Dexter belts out arias as he walks. Just like Athena, we watch as all these disparate tunes mingle into one; the tangled melody of domestic life.

In their house on Bunker Street, Dexter has attempted to shelter his wife, Athena, and children from all the things he mistrusts about the modern world – loud music, spiky haircuts, American culture.

A chance encounter brings Elizabeth, an old university friend, back into Dexter’s life. Elizabeth’s much younger sister, Vicki, has just moved across the country to live with Elizabeth after the death of their mother.

As Vicki and Elizabeth spend more time at Bunker Street, Athena awakens to the possibility of an existence separate to her distant, domineering husband, her intellectually handicapped son and the routine of domestic life.

Whether Dexter is ready or not, the “modern world” he’s tried so hard to shut out is about to invade Bunker Street – and it will have repercussions Dexter could never have seen coming.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this novel could easily have veered into the territory of the soap opera: melodramatic, cloying. But The Children’s Bach is none of these things. It’s such a quietly sincere novel.

Garner’s writing has a certain catchiness about it. Perhaps it’s the dry crackle of Garner’s short sentences, the way she manages to say so little and convey so much? When she introduces us to Dexter and Athena, she writes simply: “She loved him. They loved each other. They were friends”. Forget the show, don’t tell technique that’s drilled into fledgling writers. Garner is the exception to the rule.

Despite this, The Children’s Bach is such a neurotic work. While Garner lays some facts bare, there are other concerns that rest deep beneath the novel’s surface. Garner returns again and again to pick at them like old scabs.

The novel is a 96-page contradiction. It’s brief, but it never feels sparse. It’s filled with details, little tableaux scattered across the pages. As I re-read the novel, I found there were images, metaphors that I remembered – even after a decade.

The Children’s Bach is compact as a pop song, but as complex as an opera. It changes key, it lifts, it soars – it plunges us through a whole range of emotions without ever feeling overdone. Its refrain will stick with you, and it won’t release you from its grip – not even after its final notes have faded to silence.

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

9 thoughts on “1984 – the children’s bach ~ helen garner”

  1. I picked up a second-hand copy of this at the Op-Shop to add to my TBR, and your review is prompting me to move it up the shelves and get to it sooner rather than later…

  2. I read this book at uni and I absolutely loved it. I agree – it is masterpiece. Beautiful writing in every way and everyone should read it. Nice review by the way….

    1. Thank you Jeremy. The first time I read The Children’s Bach was for University too. I really enjoyed it when I was nineteen or twenty or so – but reading The Children’s Bach for the second time, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for Garner’s achievement. It’s amazing the difference a decade (*ahem* and a bit) can make…

  3. Helen Garner is one of those authors whose sentences are able to reach out and punch me in the face with great regularity. I guess she’s a bit of a heroine of mine. I am studying a creative nonfiction class at uni at the moment and in our last class we watched a clip (http://www.themonthly.com.au/helen-garner-her-influences-and-inspirations-sydney-writers-festival-1000) from the Sydney Writers Festival and I found myself all gushy on the inside. Oh, Helen reads books on the toilet like I do. Oh, Helen totally forgets books she’s read – even if she’s read them twice. Got a bit of a writer crush going on there :)

    I was interested to note how you said “Is it pure egotism that compels me to speak my piece, regardless?” I keep coming lately across people who suspect egotism is driving their desire to express themselves about things that they feel strongly about. I understand where it comes from (because there’s always a bit of that mixed up in everything, isn’t there) but part of me finds it surprising as well that so many people seem to be feeling that way.

    1. Uh oh. Sue, I think you’ve passed your writerly crush onto me. She was brilliant! Thank you so much for the link to the SWF video – I loved it.

      The Children’s Bach is the only Garner I’ve read. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work. Hopefully very soon…

      As for my throwaway comment about egotism: I think all bloggers suffer stage fright from time to time. It’s a difficult thing to do – putting your words out there for other people to read. Actually, I’m kind of glad to hear it’s not just me who feels self-conscious from time to time.

  4. ’tis the most terrifying thing putting your words out there. As crazy as, say, taking off all your skin and going out into the street and interacting with people :)

    1. Thank you David. It’s not an easy novel to review, is it? I thought, at fewer than one hundred pages, it’d be a pushover. Wrong.

      Never underestimate Garner. Lesson learned.

      I’ve just had a look at your review – I can’t leave a comment there, but I do like that we both picked up on Garner’s unwillingness to write by the so-called rules. Reviewing her novel has filled me with (even more) respect for the way she writes.

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