Book Review: Helen Garner’s Yellow Notebook is an exhilarating look inside the writer’s mind

Helen Garner is a Virginia Woolf fan. This is especially apparent in her latest release, Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1 1978-1987. Woolf once said, “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with a sharpness of steel.” This quote amply describes to Garner’s prose and crisp anecdotes. The writing is a rich collection of beautiful, witty and transient moments captured initially for posterity, and now publication.

In 1977 Garner published her debut novel, Monkey Grip. It is during the aftermath of its publication that these diaries pick up. Even though she’s now a published author by this point, you get the sense that she is still discovering her craft and finding her voice. Fans of her writing will especially enjoy this work and will take note of the different beats and lessons she gathers along the way.

The experience of reading someone’s diary can be voyeuristic. We are given an unfiltered look at Garner’s thoughts and beliefs. This means that some things are extremely intimate and raw, but often this unfettered access is also an absolute joy. Her feelings of anxiety and self-doubt as well as her harsh inner critic will be surprising for those who consider Garner to be so accomplished. It is also relatable for readers who experience their own negative thoughts and beliefs.

This book does not spoon-feed readers. In fact you could argue that it does hold back and at times retains a little mystery. The entries are often like little fragments, some barely a paragraph and others just a sentence. There is no anchoring in terms of specific dates and times, only the year is given and it is ordered chronologically. Some of the individuals here are given names like “The law student” and “The biographer.” Others are only given an initial (and these do not correspond with their actual names). It is up to the reader to determine which letter is Garner’s daughter, her husband, or her friends and acquaintances.

This set doesn’t have a neat beginning, middle or end. It starts by suggesting that there were diaries before it (in various interviews Gamer admits she burnt these early volumes). The reader can dip in and out of the different entries here at their own whim. While Garner’s life progresses and she grows as an author, there is nothing to stop readers seeking out their own adventures through this text.

Garner is renowned for her succinct style of writing and this volume does not disappoint. These pieces might not have been originally intended for publication, but they offer an immersive experience through her fierce personality all the same. Garner’s life is peppered with sincere and honest observations. The work of an enquiring mind, it should enlighten those with similar brains. Certainly, it will capture the hearts of the curious and those perceptive beings who will appreciate the rich, interior life of one of Australia’s finest writers.


Helen Garner’s Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume I 1978-1987 is available now through Text Publishing.

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