Throughout her career, Garner has written both fiction and non-fiction. She attracted controversy with her book The First Stone about a sexual harassment scandal in a university college. She has also written for film and theatre, and has consistently won awards for her work including the Walkley Award for a 1993 Time Magazine report. Two of her works have been adapted into feature films: her debut novel Monkey Grip and her true crime book Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004) – the former released in 1982 and the latter in 2016.
Garner's works have covered a broad range of themes and subject matter. She has twice written true-crime novels: first with Joe Cinque's Consolation, a report about the court proceedings of a young man who died at the hands of his girlfriend and again in 2014, with This House of Grief. She has been called one of "Australia's most important and admired writers".
Garner was born in Geelong, Victoria, the eldest of six children. Her sister Catherine Ford is also a writer of fiction. She attended Manifold Heights State School, Ocean Grove State School and then The Hermitage in Geelong. She went on to study at the University of Melbourne, residing at Janet Clarke Hall, and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts with majors in English and French.
Between 1966 and 1972, Garner worked as a high-school teacher at various Victorian high schools. During this time, in 1967, she also travelled overseas and met Bill Garner, whom she married in 1968 on their return to Australia. Her only child, the actor, musician and writer Alice Garner, was born in 1969, and her marriage ended in 1971.
In 1972, she was sacked by the Victorian Department of Education for "giving an unscheduled sex education lesson to her 13-year-old students at Fitzroy High School". The case was widely publicised in Melbourne, bringing Garner a degree of notoriety.
Garner married two more times: Jean-Jacques Portail (1980–85) and Australian writer Murray Bail (born 1941). She is no longer married. In her work, she has been open about her struggle with depression, particularly in Monkey Grip and The First Stone.
In 2003, a portrait of Garner, titled True Stories, painted by Jenny Sages, was a finalist in the Archibald Prize.
Garner came to prominence at a time when Australian writers were relatively few in number, and Australian women writers were, by some, considered a novelty. Australian academic and writer, Kerryn Goldsworthy, writes that "From the beginning of her writing career Garner was regarded as, and frequently called, a stylist, a realist, and a feminist".
Her first novel, Monkey Grip (1977), relates the lives of a group of welfare recipients living in student-style accommodation in Melbourne. Years later she stated that she had adapted it directly from her personal diaries. The book was very successful: it won the National Book Council Award in 1978 and was turned into a film in 1982. In fact, Goldsworthy suggests that the success of Monkey Grip may well have helped revive the careers of two older but largely ignored Australian women writers, Jessica Anderson and Thea Astley. Thea Astley wrote of the novel that "I am filled with envy by someone like Helen Garner for instance. I re-read Monkey Grip a while ago and it's even better second time through". Critics have retrospectively applied the term Grunge Lit to describe Monkey Grip, citing its depiction of urban life and social realism as being key aspects of later works in the subgenre.
In subsequent books, she has continued to adapt her personal experiences. Her later novels are: The Children's Bach (1984) and Cosmo Cosmolino (1992). In 2008 she returned to fiction writing with the publication of The Spare Room, a fictional treatment of caring for a dying cancer patient, based on the illness and death of Garner's friend Jenya Osborne. She has also published several short story collections: Honour & Other People's Children: two stories (1980), Postcards from Surfers (1985) and My Hard Heart: Selected Fictions (1998).
In 1986, Australian academic and critic, Don Anderson, wrote of The Children's Bach: "There are four perfect short novels in the English language. They are, in chronological order, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Garner's The Children's Bach." The Australian composer Andrew Schultz wrote an opera of the same name which premiered in 2008.
Garner said, in 1985, that writing novels was like "trying to make a patchwork quilt look seamless. A novel is made up of scraps of our own lives and bits of other people's, and things we think of in the middle of the night and whole notebooks full of randomly collected details". In an interview in 1999, she said that "My initial reason for writing is that I need to shape things so I can make them bearable or comprehensible to myself. It's my way of making sense of things that I've lived and seen other people live, things that I'm afraid of, or that I long for".
Not all critics have liked Garner's work. Goldsworthy writes that "It is certainly the case that Garner is someone whose work elicits strong feelings ... and people who dislike her work are profoundly irritated by those who think she is one of the best writers in the country". Novelist and reviewer, Peter Corris wrote in his review of Monkey Grip that Garner "has published her private journal rather than written a novel" while Peter Pierce wrote in Meanjin of Honour and Other People's Children that Garner "talks dirty and passes it off as realism". Goldsworthy suggests that these two statements imply that she is not really a writer. Craven, though, argues that her novella, The Children's Bach, "should put paid to the myth of Helen Garner as a mere literalist or reporter", arguing, in fact, that it "is light years away from any sprawling-tell-it-all naturalism, [that] it is concentrated realism of extraordinary formal polish and the amount of tonal variation which it gets from its seemingly simple plot is multifoliate to the point of being awesome".
Garner has covered a broad range of themes in her work, ranging from feminism, love, loss, grief, death, illness, murder, betrayal, addiction and the duality of the human psyche, particularly in manifestations of "good" and "evil". Her earliest work, Monkey Grip, is well known for its untamed depiction of heroin addiction. Its central character, a single mother, falls in love with an addict in an inner-city bohemian Melbourne suburb, dotted with junkies and share houses, during the 1970s. Drug addiction, however, was not a subject Garner would revisit, aside from touching on recreational drug use among university students in Joe Cinque's Consolation. However, Monkey Grip did establish Garner's trademark themes of obsession, particularly in conjunction with love and sexuality.
Some of her novels address "sexual desire and the family", exploring "the relationship between sexual behaviour and social organisation; the anarchic nature of desire and the orderly force of the institution of 'family'; the similarities and differences between collective households and nuclear families; the significance and the language of housework; [and] the idea of 'the house' as image, symbol, site and peace." Garner has become known for her depiction of Australian life, both in the city and rural regions–she was born in Geelong and spent much of her life in Melbourne, approximately 75 kilometres (46 miles) from her hometown. Anne Myers recognised Garner's portrayals of the location of Melbourne as essential to Monkey Grip itself as any character: "Garner was writing Melbourne into the literary landscape and for the first time I saw my own world reflected back at me".
Joe Cinque's Consolation, This House of Grief and to a lesser extent The First Stone, were commentaries on the justice system in Australia, how (and if) it adequately responds to crime, as well as the question of culpability.
Craven comments that Garner is "always an extremely accurate writer in terms of the emotional states she depicts". Many of her books touch upon the inexplicable, irrational, and dark side to human behaviour–as well as Garner's attempts to understand this behaviour, which eludes the average Australian and wider society, as well as the Australian justice system. Peter Craven wrote that Garner is fearless in her honesty: "she shows us what she does not know or is too blind to see: she shows us the poverty of the self in the face of impercipience caused by sentiment or anger, prejudice, ignorance or dumb incapacity." He further commented on her ability to sometimes identify with the story's perceived villain, "[the] transgressor who at some level shares our own fingerprints". Similarly, various critics and journalists have highlighted Garner's portrayal of "ordinary people" caught up in extraordinary experiences, or the everyday person who, "under life's unbearable pressures", has "surrendered to their darker selves". James Wood, in a profile on Garner published in The New Yorker, stated that her work is absorbed in issues of gender and class, which he writes are "not categories so much as structures of feeling, variously argued over, enjoyed, endured, and escaped".
She has written three screenplays: Monkey Grip (1982), written with and directed by Ken Cameron; Two Friends (1986), directed by Jane Campion for TV; and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), directed by Gillian Armstrong. The relationship between two characters in The Last Days of Chez Nous was loosely inspired by the extramarital affair Garner's second husband had with her sister.
Critic Peter Craven writes that "Two Friends is arguably the most accomplished piece of screenwriting the country has seen and it is characterised by a total lack of condescension towards the teenage girls at its centre".
Garner has written non-fiction from the beginning of her career as a writer. In 1972 she was fired from her teaching job after publishing in The Digger, a counter-culture magazine, an anonymous account of frank and extended discussions she had with her students about sexuality and sexual activities. She wrote for this magazine from 1972 to 1974. In 1993, she won a Walkley Award for her TIME magazine account of a murder trial following the death of a toddler at the hands of his stepfather.
One of her most famous and controversial books is The First Stone (1995), an account of a 1992 sexual harassment scandal at Ormond College. It was a best-seller in Australia but also attracted considerable criticism. Garner's other non-fiction books are: True Stories: Selected Non-Fiction (1996), The Feel of Steel (2001), Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004) and This House of Grief – The Story of a Murder Trial (2014). She also contributed to La Mama, the Story of a Theatre (1988). Joe Cinque's Consolation details a notorious murder case in Canberra involving a law student, Anu Singh, who drugged and murdered her boyfriend. It was adapted into a feature film in 2016. The film had premiers at both the Melbourne Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was well-received.Monkey Grip
1978 – National Book Council award
The Children's Bach
1986 – South Australian Premier's Awards
Postcards from Surfers
1986 – New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
1987 – New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, Television Writing Award
1987 – Best Screenplay in a Telefeature
1993 – Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award
Did Daniel Have to Die?
1993 – Walkley Award for Best Feature Writing, published in TIME
True Stories: Selected Non-fiction
1997 – Nita Kibble Literary Award
Joe Cinque's Consolation
2004 – ABIA Book of the Year
2005 – Ned Kelly Awards joint winner for Best True Crime
The Spare Room
2008 – Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction
2008 – Queensland Premier's Literary Awards Fiction Book Award
2009 – Barbara Jefferis Award
This House of Grief
2015 – Ned Kelly Award – Best True Crime
2015 – Longlisted Stella Prize
2015 – Shortlisteds ABIA General Non-Fiction Book of the Year.
2016 – Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for non-fiction works
2016 – Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards – non fiction
2016 – Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards – overall prize
Everywhere I Look
2017 – Shortlist for The Indie Book Awards
2006 – Melbourne Prize for Literature
Plunkett, Felicity (September 2014). "Our terrible projections : Helen Garner and the corridors of empathy". Australian Book Review. 364: 15–17. Review of This House of Grief.