I would read a bus timetable written by Helen Garner. This is why I raced to buy her latest release ‘This House of Grief’, despite knowing the content of the criminal case the book recounts, having read excerpts of the text in various newspapers, and having watched her recent interview with Jennifer Byrne for the ABC Book Club. Certainly, there was much discussion about the challenging material within the book before its release, and I noticed many friends and fellow readers on social media were hesitant to read about the deaths of the three Farquharson children. It was a truly tragic case: I’ll make no other comment here on the details of the case. Instead, my comments are about Garner’s story telling alone.
The usual commentary about Garner’s style is her observance of small details, and her insightful interpretation of human idiosyncrasies and traits. Garner often speaks of her curiosity of what makes people ‘tick’, and her search for meaning in events and actions of people fuel much of her work. This case is no exception: Garner was compelled to follow the case out of curiosity on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’ and she soon realised that she wanted to write an extended piece on the case. Her previous account of a true crime in ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ was a critically acclaimed and commercially successful book: the mother of the victim in that case became close with Garner and was a wonderful ‘voice’ in the account. Her involvement with the writing of the book gave vital insight into Joe’s character and really made it an exceptional piece of non-fiction. Garner did not have access to either party in this case, bar limited access to the maternal grandparents of the boys, and some minor interaction with the representing lawyers. As Garner noted in her interview with Jennifer Byrne, this is the gamble one pays with recounting a true crime; access to the Farquharson parents was always going to be tricky and ultimately did not come to fruition. Like Anna Krien’s ‘Night Games’ which I reviewed here last year, I didn’t think the lack of direct material from the affected parties left either book lacking, which is a testimony to the quality of writing from both Krien and Garner.
In fact, I was hugely engaged in the retelling of the case and for someone who has never been on a jury or had any need to be involved with lawyers or a trial, it was educative and informative. The law is indeed a complex beast. The personalities in this case, including the legal counsel, the jury members and the media court reporters provided ample interest in the narrative, and Garner’s ability to draw out interesting conversation from those around her enriches the text. A serendipitous element of the book is Garner’s tag-along gap year student Louise, ‘a close friend’s daughter, a pale and quiet sixteen year old with white blonde hair and braces on her teeth’. Louise says some wonderful things of the case, as only a savvy teenager can, and provided Garner with some moments of levity within the book.
Garner maintains a clear and succinct style as befitting the retelling of a court case, but weaves occasional moments of absolutely moving imagery: she writes of the children’s graves, ‘In the mown grass sprouted hundreds of tiny pink flowers. We picked handfuls and laid them on the grave, but the breeze kept blowing them away. Every twig, every pebble we tried to weigh them with was too light to resist the steady rushing of the spring wind’. And every so often her signature brutal honesty makes a welcome appearance: ‘My head was full of a very loud clanging. Nothing expert, nothing trained or intellectual. Just a shit detector going off, that was all. The alarm bells of a woman who had been in the world for more than sixty years, knowing men, sometimes hearing them say true things, sometimes being told lies.’
I won’t say this is a great read, because I feel uncomfortable when people lightly celebrate works on such grave matters. I will say this is a very important read, and urge readers to engage in this content for the very reason that by ignoring domestic violence out of an unwillingness to imagine such horror we make no progress in addressing the issue. Garner wanted to understand the ‘why’, and I can empathise in that quest, as hard as it is to enter the mindset behind it. Thank goodness the conversation here has been furthered by such an intelligent and compassionate mind.
*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014