Review: THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF by Helen Garner

ThisHouseOfGriefGarnerH25742BDR7_fI am generally too much of a coward to delve into true crime which is, of necessity, rarely neat. Although I often claim to like my crime fiction realistic that, if I’m totally honest, is only up to a point. I can live with the ambiguity of not knowing who has committed a crime but struggle when the question of why a thing was done goes unanswered. Crime fiction – the best of it anyway – is superb at teasing out reasons and in so doing provides a layer of order over the chaos. True crime is often messily unable to provide such  solutions, leaving me more troubled than I am comfortable being by choice. But I thought that if anyone could make sense – or glean some insight into the human condition – out of the seemingly stark fact of yet another bloke killing his own children it’d be Helen Garner. She of the keen, wise eye and sparse, sometimes breathtaking prose. And if 1995’s THE FIRST STONE is any indication she might offer a more balanced view than many of us could muster for in that first non-fiction work Garner attracted more than a little controversy for appearing to be ‘too soft’ on a man accused of sexual harassment. I was curious enough to see what she would make of this case – and its implied comment on gender roles in contemporary Australian society – to muster up the courage needed to read about a real crime.

THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF is, in a way, the result of Garner’s silent prayer made in September 2005

I saw it on the TV news. Night. Low foliage. Water, misty and black. Blurred lights, a chopper. Men in hi-vis and helmets. Something very bad here. Something frightful.

Oh Lord, let this be an accident.

The broad facts of that frightful thing are that on the evening of Father’s Day Robert Farquharson drove off a Victorian road into a seven-metre deep dam. He escaped. His three children drowned. Farquharson would eventually be charged and tried (twice) for three murders while he still maintains that the horror was the accidental result of him suffering a temporary blackout following a coughing fit.

Garner interviews none of the central figures in the case and  any comments offered by minor players or other observers are the result of largely incidental encounters between them and the author. So instead of the usual true crime fare the details of this case are revealed to readers almost entirely via Garner’s observations of its extensive court proceedings, with the first trial of seven weeks occupying the largest chunk of the book.

And so what THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF offers above all else is an always fascinating, often depressing view of our legal system. The overwhelming sense I came away with is that the sheer tedium of the process is almost equally as damaging to possible effectiveness as the jaw-dropping corruption or incompetence that one might find in fiction. Garner describes days and days of testimony from dueling experts about esoteric subjects – the angle at which the car came off the road, which marks on the ground prove this side’s argument or that side’s, just how tiny is the possibility of the kind of coughing episode Farquharson claims to have had. As Garner observes

Hour after hour, while the cop and counsel danced like medieval angels upon the head of a pin, I grew stupider and stupider. Surely one did not need a science degree to understand how the car had gone into the dam? I kept glancing at the older men in the jury, the ones who looked like retired tradies or maths teachers in their loose, comfortable T-shorts or plain zipper jackets. Did they too feel this thickening of the brain, this blunting and blurring of mental capacity?…What if I were one of those tired, frightened jurors, sequestered by an oath from the comfort of work and family, browbeaten by oratory, craving the release of laughter or tears? Would I be dreading the moment when this tinnitus-like racket would have to be disentangled, unpicked, coaxed into a pattern of meaning, so that we could see what was really there, weigh it up and arrive at a judgement on a fellow human being?

And a few pages later

The light went out of the jurors faces…A visible wave of resistance rolled through the jury. Their eyes dulled. Their backbones went limp. Yawns tormented them…Justice Cummins took his glasses off and scrubbed at his eyes and forehead; he clenched his jaw, rubbed his cheeks with both hands. I thought, he is sick to death of this, and so is the jury.

It seems preposterous when viewed from this angle that the best we can come up with to determine a person’s guilt or innocence is to have 12 average people wade through such gibberish. Though the way Garner depicts it such expert testimony is virtually irrelevant and we are left with the feeling that justice boils down to how good a judge of character each jury member is.

The other element of the book that stands out is how well Garner describes her own process of determining Farquharson’s guilt or innocence. She is at the outset undecided, or perhaps a better description is that she is unwilling to commit to the belief that most of us (myself included) probably came to in a matter of moments after hearing the news. That he is another one of those men and that Jai, Tyler and Bailey Farquharson are three more souls lost to some saddo’s twisted desire for revenge. So she looks, actively for opportunities to believe otherwise. Until such opportunities are exhausted. And then she addresses the question of whether loving someone can coexist with believing in their guilt. Ay, there’s the rub.

Although it teases out explanations for Farquharson’s actions THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF does not pretend to speak to the broader social issue of this category of crime. This fact has made some readers cross but, even though it was partly what I was looking for going in, I’m not one of them. If I only judge the book that was written rather than the one I wanted to read  then it is outstanding. As a glimpse into the modern justice system the book left me with more questions than answers. Is it enough that courtrooms provide a stage on which character can be demonstrated and subsequently judged? And if not…what else is there? As a portrait of one man who has committed an unspeakable act the book is remarkable. Because in its very measured, quiet way it shows us the saddest fact of all: that Farquharson isn’t a monster whose history of abuse and violent behaviour could have predicted his actions if only the right people had been watching. He’s just a bloke. A saddo who never quite grew up.

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AWW2016This is the third book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challange check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

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Publisher Text Publishing [2014]
ISBN 9781922079206
Length 300 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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13 Responses to Review: THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF by Helen Garner

  1. I’ve had this on my wish list for some time, Bernadette. Your review has made me want to read it even more. Like you, I don’t read a lot of true crime, but this one seems to explore some really important issues that go beyond the actual incidents. And I like the idea of a book that doesn’t give easy answers.

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  2. Rebecca says:

    Great post. I’m still thinking about this book, and I read it ages ago. I haven’t read anything quite like it, but I’ll admit I only dabble in true crime books.

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    • I used to read lots of it when I was younger Rebecca…I’ve gotten more cowardly the older as I’ve aged…but it’s hard to pass up an observation like this, from someone I’m confident isn’t being prurient whatever else she may or may not bring to the table.

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  3. Bill Selnes says:

    Bernadette: Having spent a good part of the last 40 years in the courts of Saskatchewan you do not give enough credit to jurors. I think 12 Australians or Canadians or Americans or British or New Zealanders can do as good or better job than a single judge in reaching a verdict in criminal trials. Evidence can be boring at times. Equally unless you are going to read the whole transcript and view all the exhibits any report is filtered by the writer. I have been the lawyer in trials fully covered by reporters. What they consider significant has sometimes startled me. Cases are built on the evidence of multiple witnesses unlike most T.V. dramas. I think every citizen should sit on a jury and have to decide whether an accused is guilty. People who have been jurors can better discuss the judicial system of their country than those whose experience is limited to reading about trials.

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    • I love it when you weigh in on my legal ramblings Bill – I’m glad you are still able to feel so eloquently optimistic even though you’ve been at the game for ages. Alas i got disqualified the one time I was called for jury duty so I haven’t had that opportunity – though I have given expert testimony quite a few times and sat right through several trials so I have some exposure to the process. I would like to be as optimistic as you are about the abilities of my fellow Australians to sort the wheat from the chaff but I’ve worked in retail and on an IT help desk – it quite literally terrifies me that my fate or the fate of anyone I love might be in the hands of any 12 of the general populous that I met in either job.

      Not that I imagine a single judge would be a better option. I suspect that what we’ve got is similar to what Churchill is reported to have said about democracy – it’s awful but it’s better than all the rest of the options we’ve tried (to paraphrase).

      I think in my ideal world though we would move away from this notion of blaming and punishing to something that tackles the root of the problems better. I’ve been involved here with a new scheme being established nationwide that aims to give sufficient funds to people/families of people who are severely disabled – the idea of the scheme is to avoid the costly and largely pointless legal cases of apportioning blame for how the person has ended up in the circumstances that they are in so that money (plus some more) can be assigned where it’s needed most – giving the assistance that is needed so that the disabled people and their families can live as ‘normal’ a life as possible, regardless of how they came to be in their circumstances. I keep pondering whether or not our justice system is similarly focused on the wrong thing – all the money we spend on trying people like the bloke in this case and housing him in prison for decades is, effectively, wasted – it’s not helping the family he left behind, it’s not stopping any of the other blokes similarly inclined out in the community – I think somehow in this rush to blame and punish we’ve lost sight of things like restitution and prevention.

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      • Bill Selnes says:

        Bernadette: I appreciate your detailed reply. Until we reach that ideal world I am glad we neither rely on judges only or juries exclusively in criminal cases. I have disagreed with the conclusions of judges and of juries. Much more often I have agreed.

        On sentencing there is an effort at restorative justice in Canada. In minor cases offenders participate in mediation with their victims. In major crimes you often cannot restore the victim. Another day I will provide some thoughts on imposing jail sentences.

        For indigenous offenders, especially for crimes committed in indigenous communities, a sentencing circle may be convened that will involve the judge, prosecutor, police, offender, victim and members of the community. It is too time consuming to use them routinely but they can be powerful experiences.

        On caring for the profoundly disabled our province has closed the major hospital that housed many of them. In an effort to deal with them on a community basis special homes with extensive support are being built. The disabled in these homes are not residing with their families. They are for individuals whose families cannot meet their special needs even with professional assistance. One has been constructed in Melfort. The hope is to give those disabled a home rather than an institution.

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  4. vicky blake says:

    Really fascinating review. My experience of sitting on a jury was profoundly dispiriting and I’m talking about the attitudes of my fellow jurors here. I think a single judge may well be a better bet especially when it comes to sexual offences. I believe that’s what happens in France.

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  5. I enjoyed this read but wanted more – I wanted an opinion that I didn’t think was there…more a “on this hand we have” and “On the other hand it could be”…I wanted a more definitive outcome – but that is about me not the writing. If you haven’t read this one already I recommend this book to you A Murder Without Motive: the killing of Rebecca Ryle – Martin McKenzie-Murray – this is a very personal look at the murder of a young woman and how it impacted on a community, a family and the writer who are trying to make sense of a senseless crime.

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