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REVIEW: The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner

If only those birds sang that sang the best, how silent the woods would be.”

Australian author and journalist, Helen Garner released her 1984 short novel The Children’s Bach to mixed reactions.

The book explores the complicated relationships between families, friends, and lovers with elements of pessimism, realism and at times, hints of hopefulness.

I picked up The Children’s Bach to start my way through her works before beginning the compilations of her diaries.

What I discovered was an emotionally charged account of domestic life which could appear perfectly usual to external views.

Garner writes in third person and seamlessly transitions from character to character, family to family, all of whom are intricately connected in one way or another.

While I enjoyed Garner’s observations of family, children, parents, and love, particularly in the first half of the novel, I was floored by the subtle but increasingly rapid unravelling of the characters’ lives.

For instance, Vicki, 17, is portrayed as wholly innocent and absolutely in love with life itself.

She is “in love with the house, with the family” whom she was staying with, and to them was “cheerful company”. Yet, as relationships and complications within the lives of Dexter and Athena (the couple and whose children she is staying with) become apparent, Vicki too loses the optimism and innocence with which she was introduced.

Garner offers her own observations on life, making these remarks in some of the more leisurely and sentimental moments of the novel. For instance Elizabeth notes, “if only those birds sang that sang the best, how silent the woods would be”.

Likewise, Garner presents a particularly fascinating reflection on first impressions through three of the women’s internal dialogue:

“All three women stood still and stared at one another.

‘Sisters,’ thought Athena, with that start of wonder which family resemblance provokes. ‘Big one’s tough. Little one’s miserable.’

‘She’s beautiful,’ thought Vicki. ‘It’s warm. I wish I could live here.’ Her chest loosened and she began to breathe.

‘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.”

This interaction occurs early in the book, when the two sisters come face to face with Athena.

I was fascinated by the raw way in which she described first impressions.

She was stark and abrupt, giving the reader an insight to the personal context of each of these women.

Yet, she also used this moment as a prelude to the relationships that these three would develop throughout the rest of the novel.

For all its turmoil, there really was no happily-ever-after, so to speak.

I felt as though the book ended as it began, in a painting of the characters as the reader is brought to feel as though once again they are an outsider watching a group of people whose lives appear as even and normal as ever one could expect.

It should be noted, the title is not the most significant element of the book, The Children’s Bach is but a piano book which rests upon Athena and Dexter’s piano.

Playing the piano – Bach in particular – becomes a motif throughout the book, in a way a symbol of escape; something which Athena seems to desire.

Athena thinks to herself: “the piano is such a lonely instrument… always by yourself with your back to the world”.

This gloomy observation is apparent in moments throughout, and Garner concludes with the “Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!”

The piano continues to be her escape, even after she has in many other ways tried to ‘escape’ from or change her domestic life.

For a small novel, The Children’s Bach is anything but fleeting and its messages continue to resonate with me.

As such, I would be quick to recommend it and its fascinating observations of the complexities which are unseen and unsaid, and in the grand scheme of things mean nothing… except to those who experience them – and sometimes not even then.


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