At Sweetpea Mansions

C.K. Stead

  • Cosmo Cosmolino by Helen Garner
    Bloomsbury, 221 pp, £13.99, January 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1344 9

Helen Garner’s Cosmo Cosmolino contains two short stories together with the novella that gives the book its title. There are connections between the three. Ursula, a friend of the unnamed narrator of the first story, is mother of Kim who dies in the second; and Kim’s boyfriend, Raymond, will reappear, along with his brother Alby, in the third. There are also angel figures in the first story and in the novella; and in the second story the men who make Raymond watch the cremation of Kim’s body may be dark angels, or minor devils, or simply crematorium workers with some knowledge of the dead girl. The epigraph is Rilke’s: ‘Every angel is terrible.’

The central figure of ‘Cosmo Cosmolino’, Janet, was young in the early Seventies: one of those blessed and blighted by coming of age in what we now think of as the Sixties, really the decade from 1965, when the Gulf of Tonkin incident was engineered to license Lyndon Johnson’s invasion of Vietnam, to 1975 when the last Americans clung to helicopters escaping from the roofs of Saigon hotels and the first Oil Shock had already begun to prepare the ground for the era of Trickledown, the Market and Economic Realism. It was the decade when a significant number of the educated, or educable, young gave themselves so thoroughly to ‘mind-expanding’ techniques and drugs that minds were rendered empty of everything but the expansion; and when literature’s immune system for the first time learned to turn on itself, like cells invaded by cancer. ‘Cosmo Cosmolino’ is set squarely in the Nineties; but those crucial ten years in Helen Garner’s life hover in the background as they do in everything she writes.

Janet is a freelance journalist. She owns and lives in a Melbourne terrace-house, Sweetpea Mansions, which had quartered a shifting population of ‘communards’, her contemporaries, at a time ‘when teaspoons had holes drilled in their bowls to frustrate the passing junkie, when cooking was rostered and bands played in the bedrooms and tooth-brushes like icicles hung by the wall’, and ‘it was demonstrated to Janet many a time that property was theft’:

Take a wrong tone at breakfast ... and you were laying a heavy trip. Mention the mortgage payments on pension day and you were a slum landlord, the last worm on earth. People stopped talking when you walked into your own kitchen; the word my could cause sharp intakes of breath around the teapot. What were we thinking of in those days, said Janet. For all our righteous egalitarianism we were wild and cruel. We had no patience; our hearts were stony; our house meetings were courts of no appeal. We hated our families and tried to hurt them; we despised our mothers for their sacrifice.

These acknowledgments cast a different light, or a shadow, back over the period and experiences more neutrally – or nearly neutrally – chronicled by Nora in Gamer’s 1977 novel Monkey Grip. Though they are not the same character (Janet is childless, Nora has a daughter), we may suppose that there is a good deal of common ground between the two, residing in the life of their author, and that Janet of ‘Cosmo Cosmolino’ is, at least in her attitudes to the past, what Nora of the earlier novel might be thought to have become.

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