When Helen Garner published her first novel Monkey Grip in the 1970s, the literary establishment of the day patronised what it saw as a regurgitation of her own private journal. It wasn’t that; but the abrupt emotion and hyper-detailed scrutiny of people and situations was clearly rooted in real life experiences. It kicked off a unique vein of first-person autofiction that has earned Garner a cult-like following today. Namely: her unmatched ability to draw extraordinary poignancy from reflections on apparently ordinary people and events.
Five novels, 11 non-fiction works, three autobiographies and about as many literary awards carry Garner’s by-line alongside an illustrious career as a journalist and court reporter. How to End a Story is Garner’s third volume of published diaries, recounting the excruciating final years of her third marriage breakdown, between 1995-1998. You don’t need to have read her previous recounts, but they provide useful context for this third, standalone act.
Her husband, who she refers to as “V” throughout the book (his identity is easily discoverable via Google), is a prominent Australian writer who has become completely absorbed in finishing his latest novel. No distractions may get in his way – not necessary house repairs, family members hoping to visit, or even Garner herself (she must leave their shared flat through the daylight hours to avoid disturbing his flow). Obvious tensions over the flat, the novel, and their disintegrating connection bubble over at various points. The insidious undercurrent is more compelling: is there another woman?
Ending a story hurts; but the fear and madness resulting from being gaslighted into it can be a lot worse. Garner articulates the complex, gritty and mind-bending rollercoaster of suspecting she is being betrayed, while railing to keep up the façade in her regular life. The universality of this struggle makes her latest work yet another page-turner.