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.