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Helen Garner, This house of grief: The story of a murder trial (Review)

December 4, 2014
Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

Courtesy: Text Publishing

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.

awwchallenge2014Helen Garner
This house of grief: The story of a murder trial
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014
300pp.
ISBN: 9781922079206

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

36 Comments leave one →
  1. sharkell permalink
    December 4, 2014 9:19 pm

    I was gripped by this book from start to finish. I think Helen Garner got the mix between the detail, the personalities, the trial and her reactions absolutely spot on. A stand out read for me.

    • December 4, 2014 9:42 pm

      I agree Sharkell …. I think she did. I didn’t yell at her once while I was reading it!

  2. December 4, 2014 9:26 pm

    I’m not sure I would be curious to read this, I think it might distress too much. It begins to sound like a modern-day Greek tragedy but so awfully real. I read nearly all of Garner’s book about her friend coming to stay (sorry don’t remember title) but the suffering was, well, hard to carry around afterwards. I think I am weak and prefer fiction!
    (a big aside: are you listening to the Serial podcast?)

    • December 4, 2014 9:47 pm

      It was Spare Room, Catherine.

      I’m not sure I’d call this classic Greek tragedy as I tend to see that as being about great men brought asunder by a flaw. He wasn’t a great man … But a week one.

      No, what is the Serial podcast? I guess I cn Google it. I don’t listen to podcasts much … Just a matter of time rather then not wanting too,

      • ian darling permalink
        December 4, 2014 10:11 pm

        Helen Garner is a writer who I should probably read- and these sound fascinating. I suppose a good true crime book (but there are many awful ones) is going to be deeply readable for the reasons you give. The best example I have read was written by an author I forget the name of but the books title is unforgettable – People Who Eat Darkness. The book is about the case of a young englishwoman who was murdered in Japan in 2000 and is deeply moving and revealing about Japanese, Korean and, indeed, English life at the end of the 20th century.

        • ian darling permalink
          December 4, 2014 10:14 pm

          People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry.

        • December 4, 2014 10:18 pm

          Thanks … I’ve never heard of it.

        • December 4, 2014 10:17 pm

          Oh, that sounds interesting, Ian. Having visited Japan a few times, I find it a fascinating place and enjoy reading books, fiction and non-fiction, set there.

  3. December 5, 2014 2:46 am

    “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?”

    I have a review copy of this and am very interested in reading it. When I first read about the case (briefly) I thought the man was probably guilty just from the initial set up. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to read about the case because once you start adding other elements to it, you end up reading a social document if the book is done well.

    • December 5, 2014 8:32 am

      Have you read other Garner’s Guy? If you have you’ll know that she’ll do it well. At least that’s my feeling about her. She’s all about the human heart really, I think, when you boil it down.

      • December 5, 2014 12:50 pm

        No I don’t think I have, so this will be my first. I’ve been interested in her for a while (after reading about her here).

        • December 5, 2014 1:58 pm

          Well, this is as good a place as any to start, because it has the crime, the heart and the novelist’so skill with language. Still you may surprise me with a different opinion so I’ll wait till you get to it.

  4. December 5, 2014 3:15 am

    Sounds fascinating and difficult. So you’ve never been called for jury duty? I’ve been called once and almost got put on a case that involved inappropriate touching of a child. It thankfully got postponed at the last minute and I was dismissed. I can’t say I am sad about missing out on that one.

    • December 5, 2014 8:33 am

      No I haven’t Stefanie! I guess there’s still time! Glad you didn’t have to do that one.

  5. December 5, 2014 3:52 am

    She is my favourite woman writer: I would have loved to be able to be even a skerrick like her … My late sister Jo was a bit scathing of her, saying that she puts too much of herself into her writing; and that is, imo, exactly what makes her wonderful.
    I was easily as full of rage as she in both the others – but more so in Joe Cinque.
    I shall hope that someone like Bolinda puts this out as an audio book.
    Thanks so much, as always, Sue !!

    • December 5, 2014 8:36 am

      Thanks MR. YES, I know others who really don’t like her, some because of the self she puts there more than because she puts her self there.

  6. Meg permalink
    December 5, 2014 7:40 am

    Helen Garner books, fiction or non fiction are always a must read for me. The House of Grief is a sad read, but Helen Garner’s clear-sighted writing of the court case and the people involved make it an intriguing read.

    • December 5, 2014 8:43 am

      Me too Meg … I knew I wanted to read it when I saw it come out. I’d read the side of a cereal packet I reckon if I knew she wrote it!

      I love how she handles all that technical evidence in the trials. You can feel exactly what it must have been like sitting in that court trying to take it all in!!

  7. December 5, 2014 8:37 am

    This sounds so intriguing, I love true crime.

    • December 5, 2014 8:50 am

      Thanks Cathy. I don’t seek out true crime but the few I’ve read I’ve found wonderful reads … starting, probably not surprisingly, many years ago, with Truman Capote’s In cold blood. That introduced me to the genre.

  8. Peter Hayes permalink
    December 5, 2014 9:35 pm

    “Although it’s pretty obvious that the right verdict was achieved in this case” …

    I do not believe the verdict in this case was obviously right; and I don’t believe that (deep down) Garner believes that either. That for me is one of the major flaws of the book.

    ps: I’ve asked this before, but I’ll ask it again: can anyone explain to me how a 16 year old girl has a gap year? Do they have gap years between years ten and eleven now, do they? Or is Garner not quite telling us the full story? It wouldn’t be the first time …

    • December 5, 2014 10:22 pm

      Thanks Peter for putting a different point of view. I did say “pretty obvious” because without a confession we can never be really sure, but I do think Garner believes he did it. I think she makes that clear several times in the book, particularly in the second half of the book. What makes you think she doesn’t believe it?

      As for the gap year, I must admit that I did think she was very young. However, I don’t think this is a critical issue so didn’t put much effort into thinking about it. I can’t see why Garner would lie about her age or the gap year. At 16, Louise would have been past the compulsory school years. Maybe she took a gap year before finishing school and went back to school later. It has been done. I can think of other reasons for a gap year so young – all rare but not impossible.

  9. Peter Hayes permalink
    December 6, 2014 9:52 am

    It’s precisely that line about the cigarette paper; when someone keeps telling me “there’s no doubt, there’s no doubt, I’m sure there’s no doubt”, I tend to think … they’re in doubt – and in denial about it.

    As for “Louise” and her gap year, it’s simply the fact that we’re not given any explanation for how someone is having a gap year at 16. It’s sufficiently out-of-the-ordinary that you’d expect an author to want to add that extra bit of noteworthy detail that would make sense of it. Garner doesn’t, and that raises a suspicion (in my admittedly suspicious mind) that she’s suppressing something.

    • December 6, 2014 10:02 am

      Thanks Peter for coming back to expand. I think that line is there because there’s no confession, no absolute proof. You pretty much have to have doubt, but she’s saying it’s cigarette paper thin. I think the book chronicles her initial stronger doubt – largely because she can’t and doesn’t want to believe it could be so, like most of us I’d say – to coming to the conclusion that there’s very little doubt (but that there is still some doubt.)

      As for Louise, I guess we’ll have to differ. If Louise was a major player in the story and had a significant role in its resolution then it would perhaps be sensible to explain her a little more, but I don’t see her needing to spend time on Louise’s story here. My mind is, though, analytical rather than suspicious!!

      • Louise Spence permalink
        March 11, 2015 11:26 pm

        Peter (and whisperinggums),
        I’m the gap-year-girl Louise, now 24, and confess to googling myself out of vain curiosity and finding this thread! To clarify any ongoing suspicions or unresolved questions you might have, I graduated from high school early, at the end of 2006. I was 16. In 2007 during my gap year Helen, a lifelong friend of both my parents, asked me to tag along with her, and, for a teenaged aspiring writer it was a pretty amazing opportunity. I think my age had something to do with the unproductiveness of my gap year – it was hard to find a steady job – and Helen hated to see me languishing. But otherwise it had nothing much to do with why I ended up going to court with her. So nothing suss there. Hope that answers your question.

        • March 12, 2015 10:45 pm

          Thanks Louise, thanks so much for clarifying that for Peter. It wasn’t suspicious to me but I’m so glad you did a bit of vanity googling so you could clear it up on my blog. I bet it was a great experience to do that with Helen Garner.

  10. December 7, 2014 12:05 pm

    Thanks, WG, again for an insightful review. I will get around to this book, always do with Garner. As for true crime, I got hooked on it when I was in Canada, particularly the work of Ann Rule. Rule is an ex-policewoman from Seattle who may be described as the queen of the genre. Before Joe Cinque came out (I’m not sure Garner was working on it then) we discussed Rule, especially her The Stranger Beside Me, which was the most rivetting of the genre I’ve read – I’ve actually read it twice. When Rule left the police force she signed up for Lifeline and her partner on the calls was none other than Ted Bundy. They became friends and the book is an exploration of how she of all people came to grips with the fact of his being a serial killer. It is a classic. I’ve never followed up on this but I suspect that my recommending it to Garner had a part to play in her excellent forays into true crime.

    • December 7, 2014 2:31 pm

      Thanks Sara … I’ve heard of Ann Rule but have never read her. (I’ll add The stranger beside me to my list of books to read.) I don’t read crime novels, so I’ve surprised myself by “enjoying” true crime. However, I’ve read very little of it, but am always interested to read it if the author or “the crime” (preferably both) have are of interest me.

      It would be interesting to know whether you had a part of play in Garner’s interest. Joe Cinque is a hard book to forget. I was particularly fascinated by the discussion about duty of care – legal versus moral.

      • December 7, 2014 3:07 pm

        I’m looking forward to reading House of Grief and was enthralled by Joe Cinque but haven’t spoken to Garner about it since it came out. I agree that its strengths have to do with unpacking – painfully – our notions of justice and how that sits with the law. As for true crime, well I haven’t read much of it, or when I think of it, any since Joe Cinque. But do read The Stranger Beside Me – the writing is workpersonlike but I’ll run out of superlatives for the narrative. That’s what Garner and I spoke about. And the unravelling of the implications for the narrator. Come to think of it, as I write this, that may have contributed to the trouble Garner got into with her personal involvement with Cinque’s mother. That is one of the strongest elements of Rule’s book.

        • December 7, 2014 3:21 pm

          You’ve convinced me, Sara … I will order it for my Kindle (if I can). In House of Grief Garner does speak to family members a little but doesn’t become as emotionally involved as she did in Joe Cinque – but there is still the emotional response and thoughtfulness that you expect from her. Anyhow, I’ll be interested to hear what you think when you’ve read it.

  11. December 8, 2014 11:31 am

    Great review, WG, thanks. I think categorising this remarkable book as ‘True Crime’ is a mistake. But then I think judging any book by its genre is a mistake too. There are excellent and poor books in every genre – including the genre of literary fiction. This House of Grief is an intimate and biting exploration – of truth, of human nature, of justice. And if that is not enough, it is worth reading simply for the quality of Garner’s prose.

    • December 8, 2014 3:43 pm

      Thanks Michelle … yes, I agree. I nearly didn’t tag it “true crime” but decided in the end to do so because it’s a little more descriptive than narrative or literary non-fiction in the sense of giving people an idea, and because it’s good for people to see books that break from the formula of a particular genre. Of course, the problem is that such a tag/categorisation can also put people off can’t it.

      Glad you liked the book too.

  12. December 16, 2014 1:05 pm

    Excellent review. You’ve *almost* convinced me it was a topic worthy of Garner’s talent. It was certainly absorbing.

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