Stories and True Stories by Helen Garner

I know I’m not the only Melbourne writer whose motto, at my laptop, is WWHGD (what would Helen Garner do?). From Monkey Grip – Readings’ first Australian bestseller – to last year’s collected non-fiction, Everywhere I Look, Garner has dominated the shelves of local book-lovers, and continually redefined what a writer can do, particularly in terms of the tightrope line she treads between fiction and non-fiction, simply by writing her stories in her own distinctive way, seemingly ignoring the constrictions of genre until it’s time to publish and classify. These two beautiful hardback collections celebrate Garner’s 75th birthday.

It’s telling that, genre-busting aside, True Stories is approximately three times the size of Stories. This mammoth book begins with a stunning new piece, ‘Why She Broke’, exploring the case of the traumatised Sudanese widow and mother of six who drove her car into a lake, killing three of her children – with Garner’s trademark blend of intelligence, insight, radical empathy and careful research. It’s made more poignant and essential by her background with the eerily similar Robert Farquharson case, as documented in This House of Grief. ‘My Child in the World’, a starkly beautiful account of watching her young daughter skirt the edges of her schoolyard social group, snagged at my heart. Three books are collected here: True Stories, The Feel of Steel and Everywhere I Look.

The much slimmer Stories collects 14 of Garner’s best short stories, including the iconic ‘Postcards from Surfers’. She is here, too – as vividly, sometimes more, than in the ‘true’ stories. In ‘My Hard Heart’, an emotionally resonant story about being blindsided by divorce, and its attendant grief, we see glimpses of what will manifest in Cosmo Cosmolino, and only-Helen-Garner images like ‘when I sat on a cushion on the doorstep and played my ukulele I saw that the flower clumps were full of bees’.

These are books to treasure and revisit. Happy birthday, Helen.

Jo Case is the editor of Readings Monthly and a bookseller at Readings Doncaster.