A writer’s review of Helen Garner’s This House of Grief.
HOW can an average Aussie bloke be present at one of the worst deaths imaginable – the swift drowning of his three sons inside his car in a deep, dark dam – without managing to recall a single coherent fact or memory about how or why it took place?
“Like a mirage that turns out to be drinkable water, Garner eventually notices something in the relentless evidence of the second trial.”
With unassailable courtroom credentials loaded into her knitting bag, Helen Garner took on the unenviable role of witnessing both Robert Farquharson’s trials and extracting answers from the experience.
As the resulting book opens, we know as little as she does about the case, having switched off to the patently horrific outcome; but almost immediately we’re right within the inevitable tug-of-war between the prosecution and defence teams, privy to every piece of evidence that will decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
There is no observing from the edges for anyone, and Garner leads us through plenty of opportunities to make early judgements.
Farquharson’s past paints him first as a pitiable sook, a man who’s missed out, been hard done by, and Garner runs with this thread to the point of describing the crime as having been caused by “the car that went into the dam”, completely disassociating it from the man, the father, the one in control of the vehicle.
This segues into gripping sections where even the water in the dam takes form as a character in the drama, separate to and more powerful than the man who put his children in the path of a swift, liquid death.
But soon after, shocked by her need to imagine an alternate, mythical survival for the three boys, Garner shakes herself out of a funk and asks: Am I stupid?
Presenting herself as nothing more than a type of ‘everywoman’ observer is her greatest power as a writer, yet she reveals frailties and hypocrisies the whole way, which only adds to the transparency.
Sifting through the clarity of crime-scene photographs, dramatic recreations of the car’s sinking, and striking word-portraits of key witnesses, Garner admits that something as ephemeral as a trick of light is capable of swaying a profoundly rigid courtroom.
But nothing definitive can be found in the evidence to leave the reader convinced about Farquharson’s role in the crime. As a way to ground herself, Garner recounts knitting one red stitch into a green scarf – opposite colours representing forces of guilt and innocence that need to be reconciled.
Between trials, Garner goes on a fruitless search for a motive, within her vast experience of legal processes, her family and her heart, but it leads her right back to where she started, observing that Farquharson is nothing more than a “wretched man” who took the cruellest revenge imaginable on his estranged wife.
Wretched by default, or by design? That’s the question the book asks at its very core.
Like a mirage that turns out to be drinkable water, Garner eventually notices something in the relentless evidence of the second trial and clings to the angle of the road, follows the slope of the field, and sniffs closely at the need for what the police label “steering inputs” as a way to comprehend the car’s journey from the road to the bottom of the dam.
This is the “brutal simplicity” of archival police photographs that Garner admitted she was aiming for, in a later essay about This House of Grief – ‘On Darkness’ – published this year in Everywhere I Look (Text).
“What people find really hard to bear is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls,” she wrote in The Monthly in 2015, counterpointing any simplification with one of the greatest human blind spots.
While reading this book I found myself unconsciously responding to some of Garner’s descriptions with an old actors’ trick – taking the language the writer uses literally, particularly facial expressions, and using my own face to portray them, particularly when she writes about Farquharson.
The feeling I got was instant horror and actors’ sympathy, evenly blended. This is the kind of place performers need to find to avoid playing arch villains. When you get the chance to play Hitler, you look this deeply, because such men never get close to thinking they deserve no empathy or understanding for their issues.
Garner came to regret taking on a book about this trial. She tried to avoid writing it, finishing and publishing it at all. Yet it represents seven years of her life and she is honest enough to include her affront at the defence team threatening to hold her in contempt of court for publicly speaking about the case.
We owe a great debt to the courageous witnesses to our high-profile criminal stories, most notably the likes of John Bryson for his account of the Chamberlain case in Evil Angels.
Without them, we are left to our own assumptions, prejudices and shortcomings. The innocent would languish in jail, or lie in graves without justice.
In this country, you’ve got to be aware enough about the worst reckoning life ever puts in your pathway, or you’re guilty as hell for manifesting your amnesia. When the case is about the death of innocent children, you’re either a hero, or a monster.
This House of Grief is a knockout journey into this human paradox, and the flawed court system we have allowed to grow around us.
It will bring out your most judgemental self, and ask you to raise your most forgiving, all at once.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.