The Children’s Bach

by Helen Garner

Text Publishing 2019

ISBN: 9781922268365

$19.99 (pb)

Reviewed by Peter Hayes

About once a year on average I see someone giving Helen Garner’s 1984 novella The Children’s Bach an extravagant one-line review. Recently I saw an Oxford professor tweeting, “If you’re looking for something extraordinary to read, Helen Garner’s THE CHILDREN’S BACH is one of the best novels of the 20th century.”

I don’t want to single the tweeter out unduly (she at least reviewed it at full length elsewhere – not that that review justifies the tweet): many other people have also made large claims for Garner’s slim novella without doing much to back them up.  My own view is that The Children’s Bach is one of the most overrated Australian books ever published. It is certainly now one of the worst novels of the twentieth century ever to have been called one of the best.

The first thing wrong with The Children’s Bach is its technical failure as an exercise in storytelling. Read straight through for the first time it is virtually incomprehensible and it fails to flow well even on a third reading. The bits and pieces that comprise it were obviously written at different times over too long a period and they often fail to fit together in trivial ways that would not matter singly, but which cumulatively help to make it a chore to read. Much of its clumsiness, I suspect, is the result of careless revision:  when Philip says to Athena, “I’m glad you said you weren’t in love with me” (116) without her ever having said it, for example.[1]

Not all of its effects are misjudged, but many of them are and in a variety of ways.  Garner jerks the reader about from one sentence to the next. She tells us that “Dexter walked with a bandy, rapid gait” and then immediately that he and his wife Athena “kept pace easily” (5) – two statements at odds with each other.

Garner also leaves out actions that would have had to occur between those she relates in a way that I would expect to trip up a reader. She has a character apparently walk straight out of a college bedroom into a garden, for example, as though into Narnia. After “She got off the bed, straightened the blanket, and went back across the” I was expecting “corridor” or “hallway” – and what we get is “garden”. (8)  Garner didn’t think it necessary to tell us the character had made her way down the stairs and out of the building and it led to a surrealistic mental image when I read it most recently, even though I had read it at least twice before.

This article itself would be unintelligible without some explanation that the book concerns the interaction of two families, one of which consists of husband and wife Dexter and Athena Fox and their two young sons Arthur and Billy – the latter of whom is autistic – and the other, more loosely defined, comprising Elizabeth Mort, her twenty-years-younger sister Vicki, Elizabeth’s boyfriend Philip (some sort of minor league rockstar) and Philip’s tweenage daughter Poppy. There are too many characters for so short a book, and Garner throws them and their inter-relationships at us too fast for them to register.

A story does emerge eventually, but The Children’s Bach is badly constructed in that whenever the story does develop it fails to develop naturally. Garner does not begin The Children’s Bach with a premise and work out its natural consequences; in what she has happen she seems to be continually inventing pretexts for what she wants to have happen next, with what happens next itself only ever being a pretext for what will then happen next.

The logic of the story is too tenuous to be grasped on even two readings: the details on which it hinges are too easily missed, being mere mechanical points often thrown away in a single line. If you fail to note that Elizabeth took a bus to the airport, for example, you might wonder, after you have finished the book, how it was that she went to the airport alone to pick up Vicki, but it was Dexter who drove Vicki home – a point on which the entire story turns.

But where The Children’s Bach fails most obviously is in its workmanship. In the world of The Children’s Bach any new detail can spring into existence as soon as it is needed and return to oblivion immediately thereafter. We never get any clear picture of the kitchen in which so much of the book seems to take place – which would appear to have four different doorways into it and into which Garner packs a variety of implausible items, including a potbelly stove and a piano, but no overhead light. (There’s a standard lamp against one wall, which would leave a lot of the room in shadow a lot of the time – a feature that would make a kitchen impossible to work in.) In older inner-city houses such as the Foxes’, the plumbing tends to be at the back of the house, but the room behind the kitchen becomes Vicki’s bedroom and from there she has to cross the kitchen to reach the bathroom that, implausibly, opens directly off it.

Older Melbourne houses also tend to lack driveways, but the Foxes’ has one that runs as far as the kitchen, (18) and yet when Dexter goes out for pizza and comes home in the rain we’re told he “splashed down the sideway with the pizza boxes”, (138) when logically he ought only to have needed to get out of his car parked outside the kitchen door.

The Foxes’ entire house lacks the solidity in the mind that such a setting needed in such a book and Garner is obviously making it all up as she goes.

Vicki arrives in Melbourne by plane with one suitcase to stay at her sister’s flat and within what seems like days or weeks she turns up at the Foxes’ house on “her old pushbike”.  (47) Where did that come from? Don’t ask; The Children’s Bach is riddled with such internal contradictions.

Elizabeth went to university for five years on one page (7) … and left without a degree on another. (136)

Vicki doubts to herself that Dexter and Athena own a radio; (56) twelve pages earlier she was doing the washing-up at their house, alone, with “the kitchen radio” on (44) – a radio that she must have switched on herself.

Vicki telephones Elizabeth, impossibly, from within Australia at “Ten o’clock in the night” when it is “one o’clock in the morning” in a wintry Melbourne. (9)

We are given to understand very clearly that the Foxes share a back fence with the quarrelling old married couple they have as neighbours, (6, 157) yet “Elizabeth and Poppy came in through the back gate” (94) at one point and Athena “opens the back gate” (108) elsewhere. You can’t have a back gate and share a back fence with an adjoining property.

It might be objected that there are internal contradictions in War and Peace, of course, and that’s true: there are and they were inevitable in a work of such length and scope.  They don’t matter much in an epic historical novel. They do matter in a thirty-odd-thousand-word novella that has been praised for its perfection and which is arguably predicated on its miniature-work craftsmanship. And why they matter, above all, is because craftsmanship gives pleasure and workmanship as poor as Garner’s does not.

The more one examines The Children’s Bach the more one sees wrong with it. Garner is untroubled by having her characters perform actions that defy human ability. Athena, sitting on her front doorstep, is able to pick out “a bunch of cyclists” that turn out to be “half a mile away” (156) from their reflection in a window across the road from where she sits. She would have had trouble distinguishing cyclists at that distance if she had been looking at them directly.

Elizabeth can hear a shower dripping through a closed door while conducting a conversation in a house she has never been to before (19) and can also observe instantaneously, at first sight, clothes-mending so skilful that it could change a character assessment – which defies basic logic.

“She’s a frump,” thought Elizabeth with relief; but Athena stepped forward and held out her hand, and Elizabeth saw the cleverly mended sleeve of her jumper and was suddenly not so sure. (18–19)

The more you think about that, the less sense it makes, firstly because of the psychological implausibility – it isn’t true to life – but also because the art of mending is to conceal itself.

The Children’s Bach also suffers from what one might call social implausibilities: from having its characters do things that, placed as they were, they simply would not have done. Elizabeth and Poppy show up at the Foxes’ unannounced with Poppy carrying a cello, in search of a lift to Poppy’s music lesson. (94) If they needed a lift to the music lesson, they must have had an awkward time getting to the Foxes’: why didn’t they ring ahead before going there? Without having rung ahead, how did they know that anyone would be at home when they arrived? (Would you really carry a cello all the way to someone’s house on the off-chance he would be at home? Wouldn’t it make more sense to ring up first and ask to be picked up from where you were to begin with?) And when they do get to the Foxes’ and Dexter is “out”, how is it that he has left the car at home? And for that matter, how is it that Elizabeth the impatient no-nonsense feminist who doesn’t slow down for automatic doors (39) has no car of her own?

That last point is more than a failure of detail: it’s a fundamental failure of characterisation, which brings us to the point that The Children’s Bach is as weak psychologically as it is mimetically.

The ultimate failure of The Children’s Bach is that it sets things before us as matters to be taken seriously and then fails to take them seriously itself.

Dexter’s supposed induction into “modern life” doesn’t stand up to examination.

This was modern life, then, this seamless logic, this common sense, this silent tit-for-tat. This was what people did. He did not like it. He hated it. But he was in its moral universe now, and he could never go back. (155)

This is one of the book’s dramatic climaxes and it sounds impressive, of course, but what does it mean? How will Dexter’s life be different now from what it was before? Will he be buying a television now and if so, why?  Is he going to drink out of plastic “glasses” now without demurral because he bedded the seventeen-year-old Vicki? And, again, if so, why?

But if bedding her really was so far out of his character as to make it a life-transforming event, why did he do it? Garner has the task here of making it seem plausible for a middle-aged married man supposedly at odds with modern mores to have a one-night stand, sober, with his heavily intoxicated and throwing-up-a-lot seventeen-year-old lodger.

The technical problem that Garner faced here was how to dramatise Dexter’s fall from grace in such a way as to make it psychologically credible. Her technical solution was to leave it out of the book. We “fade out” on Dexter and the violently ill Vicki in her room, a bucket to hand, with Dexter cradling her head while she “babbles” about her fear of falling asleep and dying, (145) and “fade in” on the two of them in bed together the next morning – in a different room of the house! – with Dexter waking up and Vicki still asleep beside him. (151) That’s authorial cheating.

Even worse, though, is the book’s resolution of the personal crisis – Athena’s – with which it is centrally concerned. Athena’s problems – an autistic son, an inability to play the piano, a general sense of frustration and constraint – are believable enough, and have sufficient weight to be made the stuff of a novel. They are intractable problems and their emotional force in the book depends upon that intractability: they would be meaningless as problems, and Athena’s story would be meaningless with them, if they had easy solutions. But easy solutions are just what Garner gives them.

For the sake of a happy ending Garner writes Athena’s problems out of existence. In the book’s conclusion Athena is shown – without explanation and impossibly – to have gained the mastery of the piano that she had lacked and craved, while the “burden” of her autistic son Billy is lifted from her by not being shown at all. “Athena will play Bach on the piano” (160) “and Elizabeth and Vicki and Athena will go to visit Como House” (159) “and the tea will go purling into the cup” – but what Billy will be doing while all of this goes on Garner fails to tell us, even though it was his long-term future she had made one of the book’s central questions. This ending goes beyond authorial cheating: it shows Garner to have had little real interest in the questions she purported to be raising and is a symptom of what is wrong with the entire book.

There’s a hollowness to The Children’s Bach that is ultimately what makes it so tiresome to read: it isn’t really about anything, nor does it tell the entertaining story that would redeem it to that extent. My criticisms may sound naïve if you haven’t read the book, but in fact it’s a naïve book in need of naïve criticism. The Children’s Bach is all show and no substance and not much of a show at that.

Peter Hayes is a Melbourne writer

[1]     Page references are to The Text Publishing Company edition, Melbourne, 2018.