Friday Faves: Postcards from Surfers by Helen Garner

Photo credit: Liane McGee

…in which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and what it means to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from writer Tracy Farr.

I ran away from Perth for most of 1989. Here in New Zealand — where, these days, I live — they call it “doing your OE”, your Overseas Experience, backpacking around (usually) Europe. For me, at twenty-six, it was more a case of “doing my EMLC”, my Early Mid-Life Crisis. I needed to get away, to travel, to find my own way, literally and emotionally, in the world.

 By the end of 1988, I’d already spent all nine years of my adult life at the University of Western Australia, studying and working and studying some more. I was halfway through my second undergraduate degree when, on a complete whim, after a boozy (the only kind) end-of-year lunch at Kafeneon on Hampden Road spent listening to other people’s travel stories, I marched (staggered?) along to the travel agent and booked a return flight to London, via Paris, leaving a few months later.

 In those days, 25 years ago, travel was different. Travel meant travellers cheques, mail via poste restante, and expensive (therefore infrequent) phone calls home from public phones at large urban post offices. Travel meant going incommunicado, for much of the time. Travel meant packing my Walkman, with a few carefully chosen cassettes to be played over and over until they stretched. Travel meant packing a big fat copy of Let’s Go Europe, the guidebook of choice back then, when Lonely Planet didn’t reach beyond South-East Asia. I remember deciding that, in addition to Let’s Go, I would take four books of fiction with me, and aim to turn them over, swap them or sell them, as I travelled. I don’t recall the three others, but one of them I have still. It went with me on the plane from Perth, and was the first book I read, eking out its reading over the first fortnight of travel. It travelled with me for months more, through France and Italy and Greece, remaining tucked deep in my enormous red backpack when other, less precious, books were swapped at youth hostels and pensions. I sent it home, finally, in a box of treasures, mailed from somewhere in Greece, or Turkey, halfway through my travels. It was waiting for me when I returned to Perth. Two years later, I lugged it to Canada when I moved there, and from Vancouver it came with me to Wellington. Here we are, still. I hadn’t looked at it for years, until Annabel asked me to write about one of my favourite books.


I had bought Helen Garner’s Postcards from Surfers some months before I left Perth back in 1989, and I remember saving it for travel, not even opening it to look at the title of the short stories within it. It was, very specifically, for the trip. I had loved Garner’s Monkey Grip and The Children’s Bach. I’d studied The Children’s Bach in an Australian Literature unit at UWA, the year before — 1988 — and I still have my copy from that year, full of my pencil annotations (“Ironic, amusing — smiling at the patriarchal world wh. leads to a certain kind of writing” I wrote at the top of page one). All I knew of Postcards from Surfers was that it was written by this remarkable writer who wrote about the often unremarkable; and it was very, very thin. Surely a thin book was perfect for travel?

 I saved the opening of this slim, black and white and red (and read, and read again) all over book until my first night on the ground away from home: in Paris. And that was the title of the first story I read: “In Paris”. It starts:

The apartment was on the fourth floor.

 I was on the fourth floor! I was In Paris! If “squee” had been a thing then, “squee!!” is what I would have tweeted (if Twitter had been a thing then). I’d treated myself to an actual hotel on my first night away, before I started on what would be a steady diet of months and months of youth hostels. I had leaned out the window taking in the oh-so-Frenchness of it all, smelling the diesel and cold. I had donned the Walkman headphones and listened with great ceremony to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Love Paris (Track 1, Side 1 of Mixed Tape 1 from abandoned boyfriend, far away in Perth). And then I had rationed myself to that one single story, “In Paris”, from Postcards from Surfers. Three-and-a-half pages, almost all of it dialogue, almost all of it an argument about the correct accompaniment to serve with fish (potatoes, in case you’re wondering. A green salad, but not on the same plate. Not, under any circumstances, brussels sprouts). It’s a story that — apart from cooking fish — is about misconnection, and difference, and openings, and about Australianness.

 The stories are perfect. It’s been too long since I’ve read them, but still they’re so familiar. This book reminds me why I go back to Helen Garner’s writing, why I love it so much: for the strength and beauty and art of the simplicity of language; for the welcome hit of life, familiar, but viewed sideways, or from an angle that disturbs, or perhaps renders clear.

 The title story, “Postcards from Surfers”, I love for its narrator knitting, for its father and daughter scenes, and for the story underneath the story, told in postcards written but never sent. “The Life of Art” is a life told in fragments, glimpses. It still makes me smile and then cry, as “my friend” cries in the story; man, I love that story. “La Chance Existe” burns with desire and movement and — again — misconnection (and connection). Dialogue, and anecdotes told via dialogue, push the story forward.

 The eleven stories in the 106 pages (yes, 106, not a typo) of Postcards from Surfers are about travel, and sadness, and celebration, and sex, and music, and women, and men, and Frenchness and Australianness, about belonging/not belonging, and connecting/misconnecting/disconnecting. As I travelled, I read the stories slowly, and I read them repeatedly. I wrote about them in my journal. I carried them with me. This thin book was, in fact, perfect for travel.

 Tracy Farr is a novelist, short story writer and former research scientist. She grew up in Perth, but since 1996 has lived in Wellington, New Zealand. Her short fiction has been published in New Zealand and Australia in anthologies, literary journals and popular magazines. Her debut novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press, 2013), was longlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award. She was a guest at Perth Writers Festival in February 2014, and at New Zealand Writers Week in Wellington in March 2014. She is working on her second novel. You can find her online at her blogFacebook or on Twitter.


Your Turn: Have you ever had a book accompany you on an adventure which has turned out to e the absolutely perfect thing to read?

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