|16 September 1977|
|LC Class||PR9619.3.G3 M6 1984|
|Followed by||Honour & Other People's Children|
Monkey Grip is a 1977 novel by Australian writer Helen Garner, her first published book. It initially received a mixed critical reception, but has now become accepted as a classic of modern Australian literature. The novel deals with the life of single-mother Nora, as she narrates her increasingly tumultuous romantic relationship with a flaky heroin addict, juxtaposed with her raising a daughter while living in share houses in Melbourne during the late 1970s. A film based on the novel, also titled Monkey Grip, was released in 1982. In the 1990s, when critics identified the Australian literary genre of grunge lit, the book was retrospectively categorized as one of the first examples of this genre.
The novel, published at the height of a burgeoning counterculture movement and bohemia scene in Melbourne, achieved some degree of notoriety for its astute, uncompromising depiction of heroin addiction, sexuality, relationships and love. It became recognised as being one of Australia's "first contemporary novels", and long since its initial publication, has come to be regarded as being the "voice of a generation". Furthermore, it helped establish the career of Helen Garner, who is now one of the most well-known writers in Australia. Garner later admitted that there was an autobiographical element to the novel, with much of its plot being diaristic and based on her own experiences.
The novel is set in the inner city suburbs of Melbourne in the mid 1970s. The characters inhabit a lively social circle, frequenting cafés, restaurants, theatres, pubs and clubs in the city. Nora, a single mother in her thirties, and her young daughter Grace, live in a succession of share houses. Nora is in love with the notoriously unreliable Javo, a twentysomething heroin addict, who repeatedly drifts out of Nora's life, then back into it again. Other characters, including Rita, a single mother and Nora's housemate, Gerald, Francis, Joss, Bill, Willy, Claire and Martin (a former flame of Nora’s), also drift in and out of the story. Most of the characters are artists, actors and creative types, many of them frequent the Fitzroy baths in summer. Nora, a freelance journalist, takes small acting gigs in independent films and edits a women's newspaper in between jobs to make ends meet.
Nora's relationship with the flaky Javo is first put under strain when he is arrested in Bangkok for drug possession. As he returns, their relationship seems to ebb and flow: while at a high point the tentative couple, along with Nora's daughter Grace, go on trips across the country, first to Hobart, then a road trip to Sydney, however when it is at its lowest point, Javo steals from the share house to support his heroin habit and disappears for days on end–leaving Nora to wonder about his whereabouts and contemplate his return.
As their relationship intensifies, Nora questions how much of herself will be left if she is wrenched away by a love that is doomed to end. As their relationship approaches an eventual disintegration due to Javo's drug addiction, deception and flighty behaviour, Nora takes a short trip to Anglesea to clear her mind. Around this time, Javo pursues Nora's friend Claire, while Nora is forced to start anew and contemplate her feelings towards the futility of their fleeting love affair.
Much of the novel was based on Helen Garner’s own experiences living in sharehouses in Melbourne in the mid 70s–the relationship between Nora and Javo is based on a relationship Garner had during her time living in sharehousing while raising her daughter. The man, James Shuvus Williamson, was who she modelled the character of Javo upon. Most of the novel was written in the Latrobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria. Upon completion, Garner took a rough copy to McPhee Gribble, an independent publishing house in Melbourne run by two women, after it was rejected by one male publisher for being "too emotional".
Kerryn Goldsworthy writes that almost all of Garner's fiction addresses "the relationship between sexual behaviour and social organisation; the anarchic nature of desire and the orderly face of the institution of 'family'". The plot point of Nora's obsessive love for Javo is matched by Javo's addiction to heroin–although the source of obsession is different for both people, it possesses a similarly destructive power over a person.
In 1978, Garner was awarded the Book of the Year Award by the National Book Council for Monkey Grip–making her the first woman in Australia to win the award. The panel acknowledged that it was "not an easy choice", given that the book's subject matter included "heroin addiction, inner-city communal living and obsessional love". They further stated that the central character, Nora, is "superbly realised in her hesitancies and enthusiasms", that the book was "beautifully constructed", and that Garner had been "utterly honest in demonstrating the dilemmas of freedom, and particularly of social and sexual freedom for women trying to create for themselves a role which will recognise their full humanity".
The novel was released internationally in Europe and the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was met with a modest acclaim there–with the London Times writing "the actual force of the author's prose carries the novel along like a strong drink" and Vogue similarly praising the book for Garner's "deliberately laconic style", further stating she "renders her experiences with imagination to produce a novel that is chilling to read, cut and coloured with hard energy and strong feeling".
It has been translated into several languages, including French and Italian.
In 2018, the book was voted number 47 on a list of 100 stories that changed the world, "stories they felt had shaped mindsets or influenced history", by a survey of 108 "critics, scholars and journalists" polled by the BBC.
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