REVIEW: ‘This House of Grief’ by Helen Garner

this house of griefIN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS:

This is more than the haunting tale of a terrible crime against children, it is a powerful study of human character and identity that addresses life’s biggest question – where does meaning lie?

Who should read this:

For anyone who likes to be challenged in their reading, and for those who read in order to gain insight about what it is to be human.

What’s it about:

On Father’s Day, 2005, Victorian man Robert Farquharson drove into a dam on the outskirts of the small town of Winchelsea. Strapped into their seats were his three sons – 10 year old Jai,  Tyler (aged seven) and little two year old Bailey. Trapped in the vehicle, the three boys drowned while their father swam to safety.

This House of Grief tells the story of the court proceedings that followed, as Farquharson faced murder charges over the deaths of his little boys.

Initially, Farquharson’s ex-wife, Cindy Gambino supported his claim that he’d had a coughing fit and blacked out. But in the re-trial, Gambino spectacularly changed sides, with devastating consequences.

My thoughts:

‘Why would you want to read about that?’ cried a friend when I explained to him what This House of Grief was about.

Why indeed. And more importantly, why would one want to write about it and spend years inhabiting one of the most dreadful crimes witnessed in this country.

In an interview with The Monthly, Helen Garner says she was drawn to the story by her familiarity with the area in which it happened, and also by the unusual response the crime evoked in those around her.

‘It was an unpopular view to think that he might perhaps not be guilty, and that interested me greatly that people seemed to find it unbearable to contemplate the matter. You know, they wanted to quickly get it out … They think, Get it out of my sight. Don’t talk to me about this; I don’t want to know.’

But here’s the thing. These crimes keep happening. Who can forget 11 year old Luke Batty, killed by his father at cricket training, or the wife and three children, shot dead in country NSW by the man they trusted most?

To prevent these crimes, we need to understand them. If we are to have any hope of stemming the epidemic of family and domestic violence in this country, we need to understand how ordinary, loving people come to kill and hurt their loved ones.

Empathy, derived through observation, is Helen Garner’s great strength as a writer. Of a particular day in court, she writes:

‘Next morning I was sitting in the front row of the media seats when Farquharson was brought up past me into the dock. He glanced up. Our eyes met. Startled, I smiled. He tried to return the greeting, but managed only a teeth-baring grimace that did not reach his eyes. I remembered the day at the Geelong committal hearing, a year earlier, when he had held open the heavy court door for me. The smile he had offered me that day was awkward and shy. Now he was a man accustomed to being stared at, and sketched by court artists, and hustled along in handcuffs. I was shocked to catch myself thinking You poor bastard. Was there something about him that called p the maternal in women, our tendency to cosset, to infantilise? Perhaps he had made use of this all his life, or perhaps he was trapped in it, helplessly addicted to being coddled… As he shuffled past me into the dock and sat down with a guard on either side, a wild thought came to me. What if he could turn to his sisters, right here in front of everybody, and shout to them across the court, ‘Okay. I did it. Now can you love me?’

In This House of Grief, there are two narrative strands at work – one is the evidence itself, which Garner ably summarises for the reader but the second strand is Garner herself – her observations, her personal experience of life, the asides and sideways glances from which she infers great meaning. These strands work together as birds in flight, at times flying parallel, at other times, one taking precedence, flying over the top of the other. Overall, it’s a graceful and moving show, and one that leaves us feeling that we have experienced and learned something about life.  This is why I read

For a free sample of This House of Grief, go to Text Publishing. Or purchase the book from Booktopia or Angus and Robertson

 

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