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Helen Garner's 'Best Essays' triumph

  • 13 February 2015

The Best Australian Essays 2014 edited by Robert Manne. Black Inc. 


In his introduction to The Best Australian Essays 2014, Robert Manne writes: 'An essay is a reasonably short piece of prose in which we hear a distinctive voice attempting to recollect or illuminate or explain one or another aspect of the world.'

In such an anthology, it’s almost a given that we will hear the 'distinctive voices' of Tim Winton, J. M. Coetzee, David Malouf, David Marr (providing a withering take on one of my favourite topics – the pillorying of Prime Minister Tony Abbott), and Caroline Baum.

Christos Tsiolkas takes us to Greece as he engages in a lively dissertation on how the Left lost its way, and when the mighty statesman Noel Pearson offers his 'personal quadrant of the Australian landscape' you know he’s not just talking about the lifespan of the river gums. 

But there’s also an unmistakable chorus of youthful voices, and they’re not afraid to make a din. Antonia Hayes takes us through the maze of misdiagnosis and conjecture in 'A Wolf Like Me', Luke Ryan is both the heckler and the punch-line in his searing, self-deprecating piece on living with testicular cancer, and Jessie Cole returns to the juncture at which her family splintered in 'The Breaking Point'. 

These stories finely illustrate the 'unnervingly unclear' line 'between essay and short story', but no-one plays with form quite like the indomitable Helen Garner. Here she offers a brooding, aching ode to her mother. How does she do it? Get at the heart strings on that keyboard of hers? 

And so here we are again. Teasing out further definitions of what makes an exemplary essay. What Garner proves time and again is that good writing is an inexorable, spiritual exercise that seers itself into the reader’s memory.

What’s also required is an element of sacrifice. In 'The Dream Boat’, New York Times contributor Luke Mogelson poses as a Georgian refugee in order to elicit the services of people smugglers (for a hefty fee) to ferry him from Kabul to Jakarta where for a time he languishes with others dreaming of a new life in Australia.

Of course, with the awful refrain of 'Stop the Boats' still ringing in our ears, we – and Mogelson – know the refugees he meets, such as the proud Youssef and his young children, Anoush and Shahla, will never set foot on our soil. But the journalist writes with such