Helen Garner, This house of grief: The story of a murder trial (Review)
Well you might ask why you would want to read a book about the trial of a man accused of murdering his three sons by driving his car into a dam and escaping the car himself? Indeed, Helen Garner was asked why she would want to attend such a trial – and write about it. But Helen Garner is made of strong stuff, having previously written The first stone about the sexual harassment of two girls at Melbourne University’s Ormond College and Joe Cinque’s consolation about the trial of a woman accused of murdering her boyfriend via a drug overdose. I’ve read and appreciated both these books, along with novels and short stories by Garner, and so was keen to read this, her latest.
For those of you who don’t know the story, here’s Wikipedia’s summary of what happened:
… as Farquharson was returning his children to their mother after a Father’s Day access visit, his white 1989 VN Commodore vehicle veered across the Princes Highway between Winchelsea and Geelong, crashed through a fence and came to rest in a farm dam where it filled with water and submerged. His three children, Jai (10), Tyler (7) and Bailey (2), were unable to free themselves and drowned. Farquharson managed to escape and alerted another driver who took him to nearby Winchelsea. Police divers recovered the boys’ bodies about 2 am the next day. They were still inside the vehicle and unrestrained by seatbelts.
Farquharson claimed that he did not intend to kill his children, that he had blacked out during a coughing fit (a condition known as cough syncope). However, he was tried and found guilty, tried again after winning an appeal and found guilty again, and was then refused leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia.
Garner sat through both trials, the first one lasting around 7 weeks, and the second one 11 weeks, and managed to condense it all into 300 pages of lucid prose. One of the reasons I was keen to read the book was to see what approach she’d take. In The first stone and Joe Cinque’s consolation, Garner’s opinion is pretty clear from the beginning – and I didn’t fully agree with her (for very different reasons in each of the books). However, in This house of grief, Garner is more measured. She doesn’t want to believe that Farquharson is guilty – “longed to be persuaded” otherwise – but is gradually swayed by the evidence to believe it must be so. She doesn’t engage emotionally with the participants in the intense way she did in Joe Cinque’s consolation, but she is emotional. How could you not be in such a case? There are two reasons I like Garner – her tight, evocative prose, and her fearless honesty. And so, in this book, she tracks her own response as she listens to the evidence – from her disbelief that a father could do such a thing, and her sentimental desire to believe Farquharson, to her horrified admission that any doubt about it is “no more substantial than a cigarette paper shivering in the wind”.
So, let’s get back to the original question. Why read such a story? There are a few reasons, but I’ll discuss my two main ones. The first is to gain insight into, and understanding of, human behaviour. Why do people do what they do? It’s so easy to judge people out-of-hand, but even horrific events have nuances, and I want to understand those. Not to excuse, because it’s impossible to excuse taking the lives of those in one’s care, but to be able to empathise in some way. Isn’t this what literature is about?
Garner achieves this by not demonising Farquharson. As she watches him in court, and listens to the evidence – professional, personal, expert – she presents a picture of a man who was “emotionally immature, bereft of intellectual equipment and concepts, lacking in sustaining friendships outside his family”. At the end of the first trial, the judge speaks kindly to Farquharson, and Garner writes:
Farquharson nodded to him, courteous and present. For the first time I saw him as he might have been in ordinary life, at work, at school. It touched me. Again I felt shocked, as if this response were somehow illegitimate.
(Interestingly, Garner did not accord such recognition to Anu Singh in Joe Cinque’s consolation. Yes, different case, very different people, but the principle still stands I think.) A little earlier in the trial, Garner quotes “a tough American prosecutor” who’d said to her:
‘If I were appearing for him, I’d try to make his family see that loving him doesn’t have to mean they believe he’s innocent’.
But, how tough that would be, eh?
My second reason is to understand the workings of courts and justice. I have never (yet anyhow) been called for jury duty. Oh my, oh my, after reading this, I’m even more desperate that I never am. Although it’s pretty obvious that the right verdict was achieved in this case, the process was not reassuring. Garner’s reporting of evidence and cross-examination reads very like those court dramas you see in film and television. There’s drama, police mistakes, twisting of the truth, character assassinations, conflicting expert opinions – and, in this case, a lot of complicated and sometimes obfuscatory technical evidence about cars and tire tracks and steering inputs, about arcs and gradients. And it goes on for weeks.
Garner keeps it interesting by focusing on the people and their reactions, reporting some dialogue, and summarising the critical (which, she makes clear, is not always the most relevant) points of evidence. Her descriptions of the defence and prosecution team are drawn with a novelist’s eye for character. Sometimes Morrissey, the defence barrister, is “as jumpy as a student undergoing an oral exam”, while at other times he’s “less flustered … more in control of the content and tone of his discourse”. His “waxen” appearance at the second trial is quite different from the beginning of the first when he’s presented as a hearty “spontaneous, likeable man” whose “stocks were high”.
She also pays a lot of attention to the jury. Of course we cannot know what they thought or discussed but Garner watches them, noting when their attention flags and when it picks up, when emotions get the better of them. She writes, for example, of one witness that “the jury liked him … he was one of the witnesses they instinctively trusted”. During her report on the second trial, she quotes American writer, Janet Malcolm who wrote that “jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence but in actuality they are studying character”.
Partway through the book, Garner comments that the question “Did he do it?” is the “least interesting question anyone could ask.” Later, between the first and second trial, she quotes a grandmother from another murky situation in which a father was suspected of killing his children via a house fire. The grandmother asks:
‘What’s worse? — living with suspicions and various possibilities and never knowing the truth, or living with the truth of something too horrible to contemplate.’
Books like Garner’s enable us – nay, force us – to contemplate such questions. They show us that trials are less about retribution, perhaps even less about justice, but more about the truth. What we are to do with the truths we so glean is another question – but that question, Garner suggests, is our “legitimate concern”, and I agree.
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)