The Children’s Bach

Helen Garner

by Gabrielle McClellan

“Here’s your scandal,” announces Athena, the mother of two at the center of Helen Garner’s novel The Children’s Bach. At 160 pages, Garner’s second novel is a slim, scandalous little minx. First published in 1984 in her native Australia, the novel—a “beautiful” and “bewitching” piece of fiction, as one Australian magazine put it in 1985—is now available for the first time in the United States.

The Children’s Bach opens with Dexter Fox, husband of Athena and father of Arthur and Billy, and his strange fondness for a family photo stuck to the kitchen wall. It is not his family, but that of poet Alfred Tennyson. If the photo falls, “someone saves it, someone sticks it back.” And so Garner’s novel begins with a lopsided domesticity: this is a novel about family, but not family in any familiar sense of the word. And, as Athena says, this is a story rife with scandal.

Garner’s rise to fame following the publication of her first novel Monkey Grip in 1977 is also touched by scandal. The novel, about a woman and her heroin-addicted lover, draws from the writer’s own life; in fact, you can read the story in her own diaries, which she also published. In 1984, Garner published her second novel, The Children’s Bach, following her separation from her husband, with whom she shares two children. This novel’s focus on a family’s unraveling after an old friend’s unexpected arrival similarly seems to echo the circumstances of her life.

By page twenty or thirty, I began to think that The Children’s Bach would not have a single protagonist. The narrator shifts between Dexter, Athena, and Elizabeth (the old friend), and Elizabeth’s younger sister, Vicki. Brought together after their mother’s death, Elizabeth and Vicki are wrapped into the Fox family after a chance encounter with Dexter. Vicki, tired of her hippy sister’s unpredictable lifestyle, abruptly goes to live at the Fox house. Elizabeth, meanwhile, contrasts with the Fox’s domesticity—sexually liberated and childless, she is seemingly everything that Dexter and Athena are not.

In her diaries Garner describes her own prose as “domestic,” but it is full of spiky, startling details: a warm description of a house, for example, is interrupted by a jolting conversational exchange. Vicki returns from a walk with Billy, the youngest Fox child, who has a developmental disability. Entering the kitchen, she strikes up a morbid conversation with Athena.

‘There was a big truck,’ said Vicki. ‘And I thought, I could push him under it. Do you ever, have you ever—’

‘Of course,’ said Athena. ‘Hundreds of times.’

Family life is a tug-of-war with bursts of the macabre. The novel shifts between unsettling moments, times when you clutch the page, perhaps fuming a little, and times when you chuckle at the idiosyncrasies of its characters. Dexter’s “disgusting” chewing, Elizabeth’s shoplifting addiction, and Billy wetting the bed, keep the bemusement going amidst a tale of stormy family life.

I often wondered if this was Athena’s novel. It is Athena who plays children’s Bach: too unskilled to master the composer, she fills the house with music “riddled with mistakes, like a piece of cheese.” But the novel is just as much about Dexter, who dabbles in pathetic and at times despicable acts. And Elizabeth and Vicki are not merely outsiders looking in, occasionally breaking things, but two women seeking peace in their own messy lives.

Describing the photo of the Tennyson family, Garner invokes the “awkward paws” of the poet, the “gaunt” look of his wife, and how their boy, “turned towards the drama of his parents’ faces,” is nevertheless “separate from the group.” This, she seems to be suggesting, is how we should envision the Fox family—the fun of the novel is bracing for each character’s private thoughts and outrageous actions.

Infidelity, bodily fluids, and absurd parenting abound, everything mixed with the hopelessness of love, death, and discontent. Everyone knows that so many things are wrong, but they are humanly unwilling to address them. The Children’s Bach cannot have a single protagonist because no one wants the limelight. In one way or another each character indulges their own demons, but in the end everyone returns home.

Published on January 30, 2024