first line friday

“In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for us all to sit up at the meal table; one or two of us always sat on the floor or on the kitchen step, plate on knee. It never occurred to us to teach the children to eat with a knife or fork. It was hunger and all sheer function: the noise, and clashing of plates, and people chewing with their mouths open, and talking, and laughing. Oh, I was happy then. At night our back yard smelt like the country.”

Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, 1977

Perhaps it’s the nostalgia, or the share-house references, or the bacon. Perhaps it’s all three. Whatever the case, every time I read this opening I want to live in that house in inner-city Melbourne, and I want it to be 1977 all over again.

There’s a fair few people out there who still haven’t forgiven Garner for writing a certain book about an incident at Ormond College in 1992, and who as a result have never bothered with her fiction. If the above excerpt from Monkey Grip isn’t enough to convince you to give it a go (I’d recommend starting with The Children’s Bach (1984) then reading Monkey Grip, Honour & Other People’s Children (1980), Postcards from Surfers (1985) and Cosmo Cosmolino (1992) – yes, they’re all worth it), here’s a curious artefact that might soften your view of the author.

monkeygripIn 1975, when she was still an author-to-be, Garner featured in a film called Pure S about the Melbourne drug scene in the ‘70’s, which Paul Byrnes has described as “one of the most radical and notorious films ever made in Australia.” (In Monkey Grip, the narrator mentions getting work “on a movie about junkies” – presumably Garner had Pure S in mind.) Please enjoy this endearing clip from the film starring a young Garner playing a paranoid speed addict. It’s worth it for the hair alone.

first line friday

“I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way. And but for the fact that it coincided with a landmark in my own physical growth, his death seemed insignificant compared with what followed. My sisters and I talked about him the week after he died, and Sue certainly cried when the ambulance men tucked him up in a bright-red blanket and carried him away. He was a frail, irascible, obsessive man with yellowish hands and face. I am only including the little story of his death to explain how my sisters and I came to have such a large quantity of cement at our disposal.”

Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden, 1978

Because who cares about a father dying when there’s a few bags of cement up for grabs?

I love how creepy McEwan’s earlier novels and short stories are. Pick up anything he wrote in the ‘70s or ‘80s and you’re guaranteed death, emotional trauma and kinky sex – usually of the incestuous variety. His later, more highly acclaimed novels are tame by comparison. And is it just me, or are too many of the Booker short-listed ones based on a tenuous premise that McEwan doesn’t always pull off?

cement garden2A man writes a rude word in a letter to his beloved, an action which changes his life forever.

Or: a man and a woman have bad sex on their wedding night, an action which ruins their relationship forever, etc.

I think my favourite McEwan novel is actually The Child In Time, possibly because the trauma he puts us through (there’s child abduction, madness, even politics!) is balanced by what could, at a stretch, be called a hopeful ending – in comparison to his usual endings anyway. It’s almost as if McEwan left the incomplete manuscript lying around somewhere and Enid Blyton decided to finish it off for him.

There’s also an intriguing paranormal element (perhaps Blyton popped that in as well?) and a terrific portrait of the British Prime Minister as a closet homosexual. All of this fun, however, cannot be predicted by it’s opening, which sounds more like the introductory paragraph of a submission to a Senate Committee Inquiry:

“Subsidising public transport had long been associated in the minds of both Government and the majority of its public with the denial of individual liberty.”     

Duller than a cement garden.

first line friday

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Welcome to the first ever First Line Friday. I aim to use this weekly post to belljarshare some of my favourite opening lines – of novels, primarily, but also of poems, short stories, plays and occasionally films.the-bell-jar1

I should say at this point that I’m no stranger to the dangers of judging a book by its opening. I have been hoodwinked before by great openings that peter out into nonsense. I was even duped once into reading a terrible novel that consisted entirely of openings.

I’ve also read a few slow burners in my time: books with 20 plus pages of plodding exposition that might take weeks, months, even years to get through before you’ve hacked your way clear of the undergrowth, but that reward you once you’ve done so with an exhilarating sprint across the plains.

My idea is to use the first lines as a starting point – a springboard if you will – for a conversation about writing, writers and other literary curiosities.

I’ve started with Plath’s opening to The Bell Jar as it rates, in my humble opinion, as one of the greats. It takes the classic dark and stormy night formula and turns it completely on its head.

On that topic, the bell jarclick here for another take on the “dark and stormy night” opening from a very different kind of genius…

New story in Etchings 7

Volume 7 of the Ilura Press journal Etchings is out this month and I have a story in it called ‘Trace’. The theme is chameleons:

Colourful, playful, and particularly creative, the Chameleons issue abounds with ideas of change, disguise, double identities, and purely ephemeral moments of beauty.


I’m a fiction writer whose short stories have been published in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best Australian Stories, The AgeOverland, Southerly and Going Down Swinging. My work has been broadcast on radio. I’ve also worked as a freelance writer and columnist.

Awards I have received for my short fiction include first place in the Banjo Patterson National Short Story Competition, the Wimmera Literary Competition, the University of British Columbia “Ubyssey” Literary Competition and the FAW Frank Page Award for Short Story Writing. I have also been placed in the Age Short Story Competition and the University of Canberra Literary Competition.

I am a past recipient of the Varuna Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship for Fiction, an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship, a Bundanon residency and an Australia Council Emerging Writers Grant.

Selected published work

  • ‘Benny Wins Powerball’, Going Down Swinging, #32, October 2011
  • ‘Honey’, Australian Book Review website, December 2010
  • ‘Trace’, Etchings, July 2009
  • ‘My Life as a Freeze-Framed Action Hero’, Final Draft, 2ser radio, 2/6/2008
  • ‘The Promise’, The Age, January 2006
  • ‘Jump’, F.Moorhouse (ed), Best Australian Stories 2004, Black Inc.; Southerly, v 60, n 3, 2003
  • ‘On the Way to Thursday’, Hecate, v 30, n 2, 2004
  • ‘Packing a Punch’, Overland, v 171, Winter 2003
  • ‘Scene on a Boat’, Dot Lit, 2002
  • ‘The Wound Begins’, Imago, v 13, n 3, 2001
  • ‘Sheets’, Southerly, v 60, n 3, 2000
  • ‘Seven Points in Detail’, Idiom 23, v 10, n 1, 1997