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The Children's Bach

3.52  ·  Rating details ·  842 ratings  ·  81 reviews

Athena and Dexter lead an enclosed family life, innocent of fashion and bound towards a disturbed child. Their comfortable rut is disrupted by the arrival of Elizabeth, a tough nut from Dexter's past. With her three charming, chaotic hangers-on, she draws the couple out into a world whose casual egotism they had barely dreamed of. How can they get home again?

Paperback, 96 pages
Published July 1st 1986 by Penguin Books (first published July 1st 1984)
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Average rating 3.52  · 
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 ·  842 ratings  ·  81 reviews

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Ben Winch
I don’t think this is a great book but it’s interesting, and it suggests a strange cottage industry of fiction-writing in Australia in the eighties which I’m glad was encouraged.

What’s good about it? The structure – free, gymnastic, skipping from surface to surface of each character like a stone over water. Also the world: Garner’s Melbourne (to me, like Soseki’s Tokyo) is more sensed than apprehended, and at its most vivid when Garner seems least to be describing it. And it’s short, only 90 pa
Penni Russon
Jul 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a fantastic companion read for The Spare Room - similar themes and preoccupations at a different stage of life - at times the crossovers took my breath away. Reading Helen Garner's body of work is like reading a life, and her brutal, tender honesty allows an intensely intimate glimpse into the interior experience of a person.
This is a brief whisper of a story about two families whose lives become intertwined after a chance reunion of two former housemates. Dexter and Elizabeth lived together as uni students many years ago. Now, Dexter lives a comfortable life with his wife Athena and two sons, one of whom is severely disabled. When Elizabeth, her feckless lover Philip and her teenage sister Vicki all become entangled in their lives, their various relationships are tested and unravelled with the same ultra-Bohemian f ...more
Dec 27, 2012 rated it it was ok
Well. This was very well written - a masterful execution of wordcraft.

It was also aggravatingly distant - Garner never gives you enough to really like or understand any of the characters, but just enough to make you curious. It's literary, self-consciously so, to the detriment of a sense of humanity.

And what's with desolate literary stories about desolate suburban life, anyway? Gah. I can't see that Athena's plot arc (which seemed to be the 'main' one?) had any redemption in it. She came back dr
Apr 11, 2012 rated it it was ok
Well. On the front of this book is the tag line 'The classic contemporary Australian novel'.

Right. The characters in this are all depressed suburbanites, dissatisfied with their existence or shocked by others' ways of life.
The characters were all a little bit whingey.

Having said that, Garner's descriptions put me right in there with the characters and the scenery grew around me as I read. But most of the time I just wanted to grab the characters by the shoulders and tell them to get over thems
Susie Anderson
Apr 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
Helen Garner does it again. the depth in this novella is incredible for its length. she knows people and life very well
Lukasz Pruski
Jan 24, 2016 rated it really liked it
"and 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!"

Novellas and short novels are my favorite literary forms so when I came across a literary critic's review in which he ranks Helen Garner's "The Children's Bach" (1984) among the "four perfect short novels in the English language" I just had to run to the libra
Adrian P
Jun 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
'Hang on,' said Philip. 'Excuse me, Athena. Listen. I like your song. Look, I'll give you a tip. Go home and write it again. Take out the cliches. Everybody knows "It always happens this way" or "I went in with my eyes wide open". Cut that stuff out. Just leave in the images. Know what I mean? You have to steer a line between cliche and the other thing. Make gaps. Don't chew on it. Don't explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.'
Alex West
The book reads like Garner has spent a few years carrying around a notebook and making random observations of people and moments around her. She has then strung these together into a narrative and tried to give the observations post-hoc relevance. The result is a bunch of striking descriptions that do little to probe the complexities of the realities of domestic servitude, the book's apparent subject.

The women in this story are all treated like anthropological exhibits, to be catalogued and obse
Tom O’Connell
Nov 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The Children’s Bach is the kind of book I wish I’d written. It’s taut, self-assured and barrels along without an inch of hand-holding. Although I admit to getting uncomfortably lost during the first ten or so pages, everything clicked once I settled into its rhythm.

In this book, the lives of four grownups and three children intersect in unexpected ways. One side represents morals, ideals, naivety, family, structure; the other: jadedness, hedonism, independence, freedom. Both have valuable lesson
Jul 25, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It may be unfair to compare this early novella with The Spare Room (2008), written more than two decades later. Yet that heart-wrenching short novel by Garner at the height of her powers was what sparked my interest in her earlier fiction. She has a reputation for shaping diaristic material, sometimes to stunning effect, as in her non-fiction masterpiece Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004).

But honed style and fresh, realist detail aside, The Children’s Bach and The Spare Room could hardly be more di
Feb 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Garner draws the reader into the folds of modern Australian life in this short but beautiful novel. At the centre of the story is the Baker Street family — Dexter, Athena and their two children — a family that seems tightly bound to one another and almost idyllic in their love and easy companionship. The characters of Dexter and Athena walk the streets of Carlton with Dexter singing and Athena laughing and the picture of their lives together is one of happiness, warmth and comfort. Garner descri ...more
Jan 27, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-2012
Have been wanting to read this for years and years, and finally found a copy in a secondhand store in Hobart while back home for Christmas :)

I wanted so much to love this book and while I liked it and found it very readable, I didn't love it. Perhaps this is what happens when you read a writer's latest work first, and then go back to their earlier work. The seeds of The Spare Room were definitely planted, but that 2008 novel is nothing short of an understated masterpiece. This one is well paced,
May 17, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ah, Helen Garner.

How I love thee. Let me count the ways.

... but genuinely, I do love Helen Garner.

I love the way she constructs her characters, or, rather, how she doesn't. When I read any of her works, there are so many layers, yet so few details. The characters aren't quite fully-formed, like objects underwater, distorted and secretive.

And Garner will reveal their purpose, slowly, piece by piece, page by page, word by word.

In this particular book, she writes about a mundane, domestic chapter i
Text Publishing
'What Garner offers in these novels is an alternative to the cloying metafiction of the late 20th century and the washed-out realism of the 21st. They are undeniably of their time – the 1970s commitment to the liberating possibilities of sex, drugs and communal living in Monkey Grip, the hangover nursed in the 1980s in The Children’s Bach – but they also belong to a literary epoch we think of as long gone, as they earnestly strive to resurrect a modernist art of estrangement.'
London Review of Bo
Feb 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Helen Garner is brilliant. She explains her own style perfectly in this line from one of the main characters of the novel Philip, who is advising a young songwriter - ‘Take out the clichés … Just leave in the images … Make gaps … Don’t explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.’ This is a dense and beautiful rhapsody. Highly recommend.
Tom Thor Buchanan
Feb 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was great! For all the parts where they go see scuzzy bands play I kept picturing that movie "Dogs in Space".

Question, though: what's the deal with the bathroom being in the backyard? This book came out in '84. Is that an Australian thing?
Oct 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own-copy, fiction
Oh hi, Helen! Where have you been all my life? I'm in the heady splendour of new love, early allegiance, back catalogue. I'm going to read everything you've ever written. X
Aug 08, 2016 rated it liked it
On the cover of my copy of The Spare Room is an endorsement from Peter Carey: “The perfect novel.” I don’t know if he’s read The Children’s Bach but if he has I wonder if he’d describe it as the perfect novella; the Australian critic Don Anderson certainly thought it was. Others too have expressed as much although perhaps not so succinctly. I read The Children’s Bach over two days, two days when I had a headache and my advice to anyone else with a similar headache—not quite a migraine but defini ...more
Dec 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
According to Australian academic and critic Don Anderson, ‘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.’ It's a provocative statement and you might quibble over the merits of some of those books, but I'm not going to disagree with the company that he puts Garner in. She also has the great merit of providing a f ...more
Rachelle Arkin
Jan 19, 2019 rated it liked it
2.5 stars. Helen Garner is an excellent writer but the characters she created in this work act in ways that are hard to fathom. The dynamics between the two families in this book become seriously entwined quickly in such a way that does not seem quite real to me. Having said that, Ms. Garner drew me into their orbit and made me wonder what would happen to them. At the same time, the denouement was not satisfying to me.
Kris McCracken
May 26, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I’ll confess that I have long held reservations about Helen Garner that have nothing to do with her work as a novelist. I think that her commentary on the Ormand College affair [see The First Stone] both unconvincing and entirely wrongheaded. However, I will not be detoured into an extended exploration of the generational culture wars within the Australian feminist movement! To the book!

Like I said, I don’t like Garner, but I have been feeling guilty about not reading enough Australian fiction,
Sep 16, 2017 rated it it was ok
The writing was great, and there were many moments of truth scattered within, and the characters were almost well drawn... But the story just kind of ended without a satisfying resolution. Now I get that those who write litfic consider themselves above the reproach of us mere mortals, but really.... This was so vaguely written that I felt like I was watching a movie on a tiny tv twenty metres away whilst at the same time trying to do calculus - I was only getting incomplete glimpses of each scen ...more
Initially NO
Feb 28, 2014 rated it did not like it
A very upsetting book, if you have known a child/adult who has had learning difficulties, particularly from womb trauma. Difficulties like sensory dysphoria, that get the diagnosis of 'autism' are the focus of this book's hate-crime. The copy of this book that I read, had been taken off a Monash University library shelf and donated to an op-shop. There were reasons for its removal, this book is a horribly derogatory, insensitive and ugly account of people who 'hate crime' a child with learning d ...more
Sep 27, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library-book
I looove the way the author writes and I was really liking Athena and Vicki in the beginning ... but then there was one section where the parents were talking rather harshly about their disabled child that felt cruel and out-of-character and kind of ruined the book for me! I don't know if maybe I just didn't get it but yeah. Also, there were times when I had to completely re-read passages because they just did. not. make. sense. Like at one point someone is hugging someone else then in the very ...more
This novella is about a relatively normal couple (Athena and Dexter) who have two boys, one with a mental handicap. They are happy with their lot. The husband meets an old university girlfriend and she re-enters his life, bringing with her a younger sister and a part-time boyfriend who is a musician and a lady hunter. Athena has a fling with the musician.

Great use of language by a novelist of great ability. But I felt the book was a bit shallow with it’s plot lines. So what, I thought at then en
Jun 10, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
this is what happens when the safety of routine becomes so banal, that you naively decide to integrate reckless disregard into your morale. we are all prone to carelessness at times, lured in by cataclysmic adventures and their possibilities. in retrospect, acting hastily on these possibilities usually ends in brooding over what could have or would have or wouldn't have happened if we did this or didn't do that. the dynamics of an opera are reflections of experience. we all need a crescendo. ~ku ...more
Apr 08, 2010 rated it really liked it
I can't say I loved this book but it definitely drew me in. I enjoyed this one a lot more than Monkey Grip as the characters in this were more interesting and had a unique relationship. The characters seemed to be a bit more mature(by no means settled) and less point of view made it less repetitive than her previous novel (a lot shorter lengthwise too). Garner's characters are well drawn and the pace of the novel is well done. There is no doubt that she is a great writer but there is something a ...more
Nov 25, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: contemporary
tl;dr: this is exactly the sort of book you think about when you hear "modern Australian literature"

Other impressions:
- Lovely and atmospheric, somehow refreshing and minimalist despite its rich descriptions
- At the same time it has that pretentious ~literary feel (you know the one)
- Nice to read something set in Melbourne
- For whatever reason it didn't compel me -- different strokes for different folks, etc
- I decided to read this based on some half-remembered extract I fell upon in high school
Feb 23, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: urban-culture
Through musical strains, Garner draws the themes of different heartbeats with their desires and dreams altering to different harmonies or discordant clamour. People change us through the openings we allow for them in our lives. A simple suburban family is more vulnerable than it first appears, when old friends reconnect. A study in variations upon a theme, scenes and characters shift to draw out each other’s actions and perspectives so no one of them will be the same again.
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Helen Garner was born in Geelong in 1942. She has published many works of fiction including Monkey Grip, Cosmo Cosmolino and The Children's Bach. Her fiction has won numerous awards. She is also one of Australia's most respected non-fiction writers, and received a Walkley Award for journalism in 1993.

Her most recent books are The First Stone, True Stories, My Hard Heart, The Feel of Stone and Joe

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Author and illustrator Alice Oseman is known to her long-time fans for her young adult novels about—as she calls them—"teenage disasters," start...
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