Issue 1, Semester 2
By Elif Sekercioglu
We know it’s the 1970s in this novel because a plate of spaghetti costs $6 on Lygon Street and all the ladies drink brandy alexanders (a cocktail that belongs to the 20th century and should never again see the light of day). Based on her personal diaries, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip is a delicious story where nothing much happens except the motions of everyday life in a bohemian community in Melbourne. All the characters can afford to rent groovy northside share houses, despite their employment being a mere diversion from their primary occupation of hanging out in each other’s kitchens to gossip. The novel captures a lifestyle that’s been rooted out of the inner-north by rising property prices. With gentrification and rising population come death knells such as this: ‘A Fitzroy North house that has links to Helen Garner’s late 1970s novel Monkey Grip sold at weekend auction for $3,185,000.’
Our heroine Nora, cycles between her share house (replete with mismatched-furniture) to gigs and house parties, sometimes accompanied by her on-offer lover Javo. She spends languid summer afternoons at the Fitzroy Baths where she reads and chats to Rita ‘under her large Virginia Woolf straw hat’. (‘No-one will understand’, Nora says to Clive, ‘but this is a paradise.’ I suspect many a MLS student, tanned solely through the windows of the level 3 study space, would agree.) Nora holidays in Anglesea to recover from her hectic Melbourne life of vague artistic jobs and meeting lovers at University cafe. The novel’s vagueness and unhurried rhythm is part of its charm. Nora’s housemate’s child, for reasons that are never explained, is identified only as ‘the Roaster’. We only find out that Nora has a sister when she suddenly appears halfway through the novel and slots comfortably into the gang, who all seem to have known each other for a long time,adoring and irritating each other in equal measure.
Nora drinks port at Jimmy Watson’s, turns the corner of Faraday Street; gets the tram to St Kilda, notices ‘the Eltham gloss’ on an expensively-dressed woman. It is shameful how scarcely we Melbournians are able to read about ourselves in fiction. It’s all the more thrilling when we do. I doubt many New Yorkers or Londoners, used to their city reflected back at them in a hundred thousand books, have felt the delight of recognition that I did when Nora is battered by the sun at the Fitzroy Baths where ‘the brightness of that expanse of concrete is atomic’. Garner describes our city with the observant eye for which she is famous. One of the members of the community moves south of the river. This is treated by the others as equivalent to a move to New Zealand.
It is an idyllic existence undercut by the spectre of heroin that eats its way through the group. Nora’s sometime partner Javo is an actor in a Brecht play and heroin addict. Nora finds the cycle of highs and withdrawal exhausting but cannot help Javo in a meaningful way. Javo leaves Nora for another woman in their group. Summer becomes melancholy winter. Nora shaves all her hair off.
But at the end of it comes wisdom, and restless winds that ease into summer stillness once again. Nora and Javo run into each other at the Fitzroy Baths, by the ‘sparkling, chemical-blue water’. The anger drains from Nora’s heart. There, she finds closure.