I’m not very well read in Australian fiction so welcomed February’s book group choice by Kim, Monkey Grip by Helen Garner. And even more pleasing was that it was available in my local library.

Monkey Grip follows the life and loves of Nora in Melbourne in hot and swingin’ 70s. She lives with her daughter Gracie in a communal house, working at a magazine, trying to stick to her feminist ideals and sharing her life and bed with a series of friends and lovers. But when she starts a relationship with sweet, blue-eyed Javo, Nora stumbles into a relationship in which there is a third participant: drugs. And as she tries to keep her feelings in check and pretend that everything is alright, it’s an uphill battle to help Javo and save their relationship. Will she make it through in one piece?

I don’t normally read many books about the 70s or about the drug-fuelled lifestyle only because I’ve seen too many films and they just don’t interest me. And although Monkey Grip reminded me a little of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in which there is communal living and a sense of camaraderie whilst smoking reefers, it wasn’t quite the same. I didn’t particularly understand why Nora loved Javo so much, and I couldn’t understand how she could stand being with someone so drugged out and with black lips and scabby skin who didn’t wash. I guess Garner is trying to talk about a love that transcends such things but I just didn’t get it. Maybe I don’t have the hippy mentality, who knows.

But, and this is a big but, although the story didn’t tickle me all that much and I thought it was way too long, what kept me reading was the beauty of Garner’s language. There was something soft and sublime about her prose. I’m not talking about difficult and elegant language, just that the whole novel made you feel like you were lying outside in the sunshine, a glass of lemonade in hand, peaking out of your sunglasses into the sunlight. As though for that moment, you forgot your worries. Monkey Grip is dotted with such moments. And although it’s a novel about drugs and friendship, it’s not all dark and revolting. In fact, it’s more about the evolution of a relationship, that even though two people love each other, things don’t go smoothly. And by the end of the novel, I liked Nora a little bit more.

One thing that did shock my very 21st century sensibility is the way the little ones, Gracie and her friend Juliet, witnessed everything, the drug-taking, the bed-hopping and everything else and seemed to take it all on board. Little stoic Gracie is probably my favourite character in the novel. There is also Joss, the brother of one of Nora’s exes, who seemed to be some kind of an enlightened being who would’ve been so good for Nora if it wasn’t for her infatuation with Javo.

And this book did make me wonder about the communal lifestyle, whether it is really possible to live and share everything with people because what Garner exposes is the fragility of people’s emotions, both male and female, and how sharing makes people vulnerable.

Overall, the concensus of the book group was pretty uniform. Monkey Grip was too long and most didn’t sympathise with a story about a failing relationship where nothing much happened. However, Garner writes beautifully and Kim has pointed out an interesting article about Monkey Grip which explains the impact the novel had on young people when it was first published. Do also check out her review.

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