Cover Image: Honour and Other People's Children

Honour and Other People's Children

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It's hard for me to review this book.  Whilst I enjoyed the writing and the authors superior observation skills which brought every tiny detail to life for me I didn't especially like,  understand, or relate to the characters.     

Part of my disappointment may stem from my expectations being  too high.  Certainly these words in the foreword by Michael Sala inflated my expectations further <i>"Perhaps the most powerful line I have read in fiction about parenthood occurs early in Honour...</i>.    I've read a reasonable amount of fiction, much of it about parenthood.  I've also read some very powerful lines but if I'm honest the line he referenced would have slipped by unnoticed if he hadn't drawn my attention to it.    I think the fault is mine.    I read for enjoyment and not with a critical mind which often contributes to me feeling underwhelmed by classics.

This was a book of two short stories or novella's.    Honour was a story of a family reformulating itself and trying to find their new normal.    Husband and wife have had been amicably separated for some years and have shared the raising of their young daughter.   They remain friends but now he wants a divorce so he can remarry.    These changing dynamics set everyone off balance.  Just as I was beginning to appreciate the characters and fall into the story it was over.

In Other People's Children the characters live in an inner city share house,  commune style.    The children are Ruths but parenting has been shared by Scotty who thinks of herself as Laurel's mum.  The once strong friendship between Ruth and Scotty has dissolved and Ruth has taken the decision to find somewhere else to live.   All characters were alternative, parenting was loose and I found it difficult to come to terms with their behaviours, their mindsets, their conversations.

All this to say, I think perhaps the writing was too clever for me to fully appreciate.  Helen Garner is clearly an astute, intelligent and original author.    Though these short stories didn't work for me  I would like to try one of her full length novels.
My thanks to Text Publishing and NetGalley for the opportunity of reading this digital ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Honour & Other People’s Children from Australian author Helen Garner presents two novellas about break ups.  Of the two stories, I much preferred Honour. Other People’s Children seemed to lack the focus of Honour, and while on the surface it sounded interesting (relationships between people in a shared house) the story lacked a sharp focus, and I couldn’t quite grasp a sense of the characters. 

Honour, on the other hand, is an good, albeit painful read. Kathleen and Frank are married, and have a child, Flo, together. They are amicably separated for years when one day, Frank abruptly asks for a divorce. He tells Kathleen that “it won’t be any different between us. Just on paper.” For her part, Kathleen asks “what’s put this into your head?” It’s not really a ‘what’ as much as a ‘who,’ and Frank rather weakly admits that it’s his girlfriend Jenny’s idea which rather sneakily puts this decision between the two women in Frank’s life while he shrugs off responsibility.

Frank’s decision to ask for a divorce … no, it’s Jenny’s idea right and Frank is just going with the flow, puts new tensions into the relationships between Kathleen, Frank and Jenny. This soon becomes apparent when Kathleen goes to Jenny’s home to pick up Flo and runs into Jenny. This is a first meeting.

They did not perceive their striking similarity; they both made emphatic gestures and grimaces in speech, stressed certain words ironically, cast their eyes aside in mid-sentence as if a sustained gaze might burn the listener. Around each of them quivered an aura of terrific restraint. If they both let go at once, they might blow each other out of the room. 

Trouble follows when Flo announces that she wants to live with Frank and Jenny. There’s one wonderful scene when Kathleen and Frank, with Jenny as the awkward third party, take a trip down memory lane with shared reminiscences. What follows is purely territorial with Frank and Kathleen excluding Jenny. I don’t know Jenny put up with it, but then payback comes later.

Divorce… I always laugh when people tell me they are going through an amicable divorce. They just haven’t got to the bad bit yet. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’ve just NEVER seen an amicable divorce. Perhaps they exist between reasonable people, and here in Honour, we see how these two women, forget Frank because he’s largely clueless, or at least pretends to be clueless, carve out their territory. Honour seems very real. Long term separated spouses are shaken up when a third person enters the equation and wants more. All the characters have to reconfigure their roles and some of the moves are petty, some are poignant and all are sad.

Review copy.
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Two novellas, overall 3.5★

HONOUR 4.5★
“Around each of them quivered an aura of terrific restraint. If they both let go at once, they might blow each other out of the room.”

They are the new partner and the ex-wife, except Kathleen’s not the ex, not yet. She and Frank have had five years of amicable separation but are connected as strongly as ever through their daughter, Flo. Frank’s been quite content not to divorce, and they joke that it’s to keep him from making a mistake and getting married again. 

How this family – and they are still very much a family unit – deals with Frank’s genuine love for Jenny, is the drama of everyday life that Garner does better than anyone, I think. Frank loves all three females, always will, and still needs Kathleen to help him with his mum who is ill.

In fact, we often feel sorry for Jenny when Frank and Kathleen start reminiscing and singing old songs in harmony and talking about people she doesn’t know and has never heard of. Flo, of course, thinks they should all live like one big, happy family.

“Jenny was left striving for grace, for a courteous arrangement of features while they recited, delighted in the ring of names without meaning for her.”

I thought this was great Garner, and I loved it. Like Flo, I wanted them all to live happily every after, but I didn’t know how.

OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN 3★ 

“Once, when she cried about her life, stuck there in the house with Laurel and the dog, he had taken her with him to the pub. She slid herself behind the long table, and the talking faces swung towards her for a second, summed her up and—worse than dismissed—smiled blankly.”

In this story, Ruth feels a lot like Jenny in the first one. She’d have been better off staying home. But now, she and Laurel and young Wally are living in a share house with Scotty and others. Scotty is as much a mum to the kids as Ruth is, and Ruth can now go out and party all night, knowing the kids are looked after.

They used to be close friends but the friction is definitely heating up and it’s affecting the people living in the house and the visitors. It’s very like Garner’s book Monkey Grip, which I read recently and about which I had mixed feelings, and I feel the same way about this.

I get it. I get the discomfort of the share, the weird people who wander through and the terrible decisions women have to make between being a parent or being a free spirit. Ruth’s little girl, Laurel, is very attached to Scotty, and watching Ruth and Scotty bickering is like watching parents on the bitter edge of separation.

This was first published in 1980, and according to Michael Sala’s long introduction, this is not the format she had in mind.

“Garner originally intended her second book to be a novel that replicated the style and subject matter of 'Monkey Grip'. After struggle and failure, and a traumatic meeting with her publishers in 1978, Garner changed tack, ‘picked the novel apart and fashioned it into two long stories.’ The work feels differently autobiographical to 'Monkey Grip', but not less so.”

I thought it was too much like revisiting the mixed bag of mixed-up people in the 'Monkey Grip' share houses, so I wasn't interested enough to care what happened to anyone, even other people’s children. It seemed like more of the same. I did feel for the women, old enough now to want some stability and to establish their own place in the world with some family rituals, but I didn’t feel that they had any idea where to start and were just going to keep letting events push them around.

As for the fellas, the less said, the better, I reckon. Really liked the first novella, really didn’t like the second, except for her writing. Her writing is such that I will always read to the end! Her later stuff is terrific!

Thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for the preview copy.
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Thank you Text Publishing and Netgalley for an ARC of these novellas.

This  ARC of two short novellas was well suited in between other reading.  I always look out for Helen Garners books, having read a few and these did not disappoint.  

Thank you for the opportunity to read and review this book.
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‘They sat helplessly at the table, survivors of an attempt at a family…’

I’m still working my way through some of Helen Garner’s earlier work, and the republication of ‘Honour and Other People’s Children’ by Text Publishing is perfectly timed. These two novellas constitute Helen Garner’s second book, first published in 1981, four years after ‘Monkey Grip’ (which I’ve not yet read either).

These two novellas are about relationships, about connections with others and the stresses that result when relationships shift or break down.

In ‘Honour’, set in inner Melbourne, we learn that Kathleen and Frank are separated and share the parenting of their six-year-old daughter Flo.  Apparently, the separation is amicable, until Frank partners with Jenny and then wants a divorce.   He also wants Flo to live with him and Jenny.   This hurts Kathleen, and Flo cannot understand why they can’t all live together as one happy family. The story ends, with Flo having persuaded Kathleen and Jenny to sit on a seesaw, facing each other.  

‘It rose without haste, sweetly, to the level, steadied and stopped. They hung in the dark, airily balancing, motionless.’

Such a powerful image.  The story is told in the third person from Kathleen’s point of view.
In ‘Other People’s Children’ (the longer of the two novellas), two women, Ruth and Scotty, live in a big happy, noisy share house in Fitzroy.  Scotty is a single school-teacher, Ruth a single mother with children.   The lease runs out, and they move into a smaller house which they share with a musician, Alex.   Ruth and Scotty have been close, but tension has crept into the friendship.  Barriers are being erected, territory staked and reclaimed.  Ruth is ready to move on, and she’ll take her children with her.  Scotty remembers when the children belonged to everyone, responsibilities gladly shared.

In another share house, south of the river in Prahran, Madigan (inarticulate and apparently unemployable) lives in a converted shed.  The house is occupied by hippies: 

‘The women worked at odd things, tolerated the three children of one of them, cooked huge, ill-assorted vegetarian meals, and listened respectfully to the opinions of the men, all of whom were musicians of one stripe or another.’

Madigan is also a musician, he plays the mouth organ.  At a pub gig, Madigan leads Alex’s band.  There’s life in music.

By the end of the novella, Ruth will be moving out.  And the others?  It’s a choice of lifestyle.

I found these earlier pieces by Helen Garner interesting. While I prefer her non-fiction to her fiction, her keen observational skills and her ability to use words to craft worlds in microcosm is as clear here as it is in her later work.  

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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I enjoyed reading these short stories though they are not something I would normally read. I haven't read anything by Helen Garner before but will definitely look out for books by her now.
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Having never heard of this author, and having been a little worried this would be a plotless pair of tales, I certainly enjoyed the first novella, concerning a young girl's desperate measures to keep her parents together, even under the full force of her would-be step-mum.  The second, however, was much more like what I feared getting – no grip on character, no emotion for me to feel coming off the page I was interested in reading about, and not even a fully clear sense of time, location, setting, or why I should be interested in these dossers.  Two stars then, as the better piece is the shorter one, but that at least deserves a look-see.  I certainly can't speak for much beyond the first quarter of the other.
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A pair of typically precise, unsparing, tough/tender long stories by Garner, both dealing with communal living and the parenting of children (one's own and other people's). I preferred the gentler Honour, but both are worth reading for their sudden, luminous phrases ("they sat there, survivors of an attempt at a family") and Chekhovian studies of love and failure.
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Text Classics are a great set of Australian novels.  Through them I have discovered and enjoyed [author:Amy Witting|398980], [author:Elizabeth Harrower|1108054] and others.  This time it is one of Australia's sharp shooters - Helen Garner.  
This book covers the reprinting of two novellas dealing with family life, separation and making decisions.  As usual, Garner's characters could be the people next door with realistic relationship issues and human frailties at the fore.  This book was Garner's second book after the gritty [book:Monkey Grip|634141] which must have puzzled some early fans.  But this book does show the range of honest portrayals that Garner is now renowned for.
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