A Review of Helen Garner’s The Feel of Steel

Mastering a new sport, a musical instrument, having a grandchild, going through a divorce, or even taking a big trip, are all common scenarios in most people’s lives. These are ordinary moments, and that is why they are so wonderful. Garner takes the everyday trivial bits of our lives, and with her gifts, turns them into something spiritual, mystical, and powerful.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

How far back do we have to go to find the meaning of “home”; How do you describe the indescribable? Are there some tragedies which we simply cannot recover from? Helen Garner’s The Feel of Steel poses some hefty questions, while looking at subjects as diverse as Alzheimer’s disease, Antarctica, an enema spa, a new baby’s whooping cough, marriage and divorce, the perfect sandal, writer’s block, the tyranny of e-mail, moving house, and always love, loneliness, and the value and difficulty of the written word. The book contains a series of light reflections on life; brief personal anecdotes, whose easy to read narrative belies their deeper intensity. Underneath the often funny stories are a range of human emotions which border on a very familiar desperation, desire, and heartache.

The stories in The Feel of Steel were originally published separately in a range of Australian venues, including literary journals like Heat, newspapers like The AgeThe Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend, anthologies like Best Australian Essays, and women’s magazines like House & Garden, and Women’s Weekly. Their appeal is broad enough to appeal to both the casual reader chuckling over their morning cuppa, or the more serious one, pondering the deep and painful mysteries of life. The writing itself is sharp and clean, yet at times as sensual as poetry, as Garner tries again and again to speak about those things that defy language. The landscape is the commonplace – things that happen to everyone – a new sport, babies, a big trip, divorce, moving house, but by focusing on those areas intimately, and using her strong powers of description, Garner elevates these experiences. In “Writing Home”, Garner explores the nature of home; the Homerian Ithaca of her childhood, or some kind of Jungian ideal. Apart from the usual narrative recollections, Garner presents those moments when we smell, or touch something, and “boom! I was small”. Keeling over from the intensity of this kind of sensual recall, “So far away and sunk so deep that no conscious act of remembering can seize the exact feel of it”. The mini-stories turn and twist, and like poetry, the sentences throw out their punchlines or moments of transfiguration with enough power to make a reader draw in breath, for example, from
“The Goddess of Weeping”: “I would have to acknowledge something that I already knew in my heart was true: the fact that people, even the ones you trust, the ones you are closest to, are capable of anything. Anything at all”.

It is these short observations on daily life which are the most powerful, but Garner can take any subject and turn it so that it becomes a mirror reflected against the human heart, as her piece on Antarctica, “Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice”, in which she takes a painful trip to the South Pole, and while watching and documenting the people and images, she avoids the usual cliches and fights hard against the human need to categorise, classify, define, and thereby limit experience, bringing Wittgenstein’s maxim back to mind: “Why can’t we let experiences lay themselves down in us like compost, or fall into us like seeds which may put forth a shoot one day, spontaneously, as childhood memories do, in answer to the stimulus of ordinary life?”, and “One plumbs the word-well. The bucket comes up empty.” And yet, throughout the essay, which is one of the longest in the book, Garner manages, without recourse to tired adjectives, or “helpless cliches” to convey the pristine beauty of the ice with its green core, and her own fear, and helplessness, and joy, mingling funny observations of the other passengers with her own linguistic bravado: “The forms are inhuman, but to name them we need the vocabulary of the body, or carpentry, dressmaking masonry – all the beautiful crafts of people’s hands. Pocked. Dimpled. Chiselled. Chamfered. Bevelled. Ruched. Frilled. Saw-toothed. Cloven. Striated, stripped, puckered, fringed, trimmed, carved, scrolled”.

The mingling of humour and deep seated pain (pun intended) come together perfectly in the funniest piece in the book, “A Spy in the House of Excrement”, in which the author visits the Spa Resort on Koh Sumui in the Gulf of Thailand, to subject herself to its famous Cleanse and Fast regime. Some of the passages in this piece are funny enough to elicit a loud chuckle, rare enough in a book with such deep subject matter, although high colonics have always provided good funnybone fodder: “I was ready to pack my bags, even before she added that one young woman had passed a small plastic doll, which her mother told her she’d swallowed in early childhood”. Or “If you are squeamish, bail out now. Read a cook book instead. No hard feelings. But before you go, consider this piece of graffiti, written above the toilet in a Paris restaurant: C’est ici que tombent en ruines/Les grands chef-d’oeuvre de la cuisine.” The humour is more subtle, but no less appealing in pieces such as “Moon-Gazing”, which manages to both illuminate the “firm globes” of a Western Bulldogs’ famous fund-raising “Male-Revue”, while making a deeper point about desire, beauty, and innocence. More poignant is “My Blue Glasses”, where a little sales attention; some deft words turn a casual shopping moment into a fragile epiphany which disappears again.

Three of the more moving pieces revolve around Garner’s new grandchild. The frightening third person narrative of an attack of Whooping Cough in “Baby Coughs” forms a parallel with the light tone of “Baby Goes to the Movies”, and the more intense first person narrative of “The Nanna-Mobile” where jealousy, possessiveness, and that terrifying love which most parents would be familiar with mingle. At one point in “The Nanna-Mobile” Garner talks about reading a piece in the Australian Book Review which lists her first novel among those selling at insultingly low prices secondhand. At first she feels forlorn, and then imagines herself walking hand in hand with her granddaughter, and “The vision was accompanied by a lightening of the heart that lifted me off my feet”. The power of maternal love, and the way in which it dwarf’s ambition, and provides a kind of warm immortality is instantly conveyed to the reader in its poetic tightness. Mastering a new sport, a musical instrument, having a grandchild, going through a divorce, or even taking a big trip, are all common scenarios in most people’s lives. These are ordinary moments, and that is why they are so wonderful. Garner takes the everyday trivial bits of our lives, and with her gifts, turns them into something spiritual, mystical, and powerful. Although The Feel of Steel is an easy read, which is much less challenging than the complex layering of The Children’s Bach, or Monkey Grip, Garner’s prose is as tight and compelling as ever, leading the reader from a series of personal musings, small dramas and achievements, into their own enlightenment.

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