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BOOK REVIEW: This House of Grief (Helen Garner, Text)

house of griefOn the evening of Father’s Day 2005, Robert Farquharson was driving his three children home to their mother—from whom he was separated—when his car left the road, travelled through a fence and paddock and into an unusually deep dam. Farquarson escaped the car but the three boys, Jai, Tyler and Bailey, drowned.

Helen Garner saw the search and recovery operation on the television news and This House of Grief documents the court cases that followed, in which Farquharson was tried for his sons’ deaths.

Garner has followed a murder trial before. Joe Cinque’s Consolation (Picador) followed the trial of a Canberra woman charged with killing her boyfriend Joe Cinque. As in the former book, Garner’s portraits of the witnesses, lawyers and judges in This House of Grief evidence her skills of observation and communication. Garner does not miss telling details, and she has quiet, always original ways of relaying them. These abilities, combined with her trademark honesty, make any of her works a must-read. Like Joe Cinque’s Consolation and the award-winning novel The Spare Room, This House of Grief is a book that could only have been written by someone who has dedicated their life to human observation.

But there are problems here, too. In writing Joe Cinque’s Consolation Garner developed a close relationship with Cinque’s mother. It meant that beside the descriptions of the courtroom and the way its protocols misshape human emotion and narrative, she could document the Cinques’ heartbreak as it played out at their kitchen table. More importantly, it enabled her to resurrect Cinque for her readers. He was present in a way victims rarely are.

In This House of Grief, despite Garner’s efforts, there is no counterpart to Maria Cinque. She meets Jai, Tyler and Bailey’s maternal grandparents several times outside the courthouse, but their discussion is polite and public. No-one in the family wants to talk to her in depth. So we are left with Garner’s observation of the trial, retrial and appeal: her bewilderment at the barrage of dry facts, devastation at the raw grief of the boys’ mother Cindy Gambino, and her documentation of the awkward tug-of-war between instinct and intellect that all jury trials involve.

Strangely, despite Garner’s obvious skills in rendering her subjects for the reader, I also found I could not quite grasp Farquharson himself. Garner builds her own narrative for Farquharson’s actions—one that is backed by evidence discussed in court but ruled inadmissible. It is plausible, but sometimes descriptions of Farquharson’s words or behaviour would be followed by a reaction from Garner that she somehow failed to also provoke in me. I found myself inferring his impression on the courtroom and jury from these reactions, rather than the descriptions of him that preceded them.

These are minor criticisms, however, and stem perhaps from my unease at reading about such tragedy without the moral cover that participation from the victims’ family might provide. Maybe Garner had to reason with the same unease. It is both fitting and telling that she ends the book with a moving defence of her own grief at the boys’ deaths. Her grief is also the reader’s.

Matthia Dempsey is news editor of Books+Publishing. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

Bestsellers this week

52storeytreehouselgThe 52-Storey Treehouse (Andy Griffiths & Terry Denton, Pan) is at the top of the bestsellers chart for the second week in a row. It’s ahead of Personal (Lee Child, Bantam) and The Voice (Nero), the autobiography of NRL commentator Ray ‘Rabbits’ Warren, which has jumped to third spot. Also back in the top 10 this week are two titles in the ‘Minecraft’ series (Egmont) and Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn, Hachette).The latest novel by Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, The Skeleton Road (Hachette), is the week’s highest new entry, ahead of David Mitchell’s new novel The Bone Clocks (Hachette)—Books+Publishing.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Break (Deb Fitzpatrick, Fremantle Press)

TheBreakThe Break is the first adult novel from West Australian author Deb Fitzpatrick, whose young-adult titles include 90 Packets of Instant Noodles and Have you Seen Ally Queen? It centres around two families—Rosie and Cray, the young sea-change couple from Fremantle, and Liza and Ferg, the Blue Gum farmers. The families’ lives intermingle in the picturesque setting of Margaret River: first, through their opposition to an encroaching development, and then due to another, more tragic circumstance, based on a real-life event. The story is set in the 1990s, a refreshing touch as technology does not take a front seat, and Fitzpatrick’s love and knowledge of her home state is evident. Her prose is fluid and evocative and the use of excerpts from Robert Drewe’s The Drowner works well. The chapters are short and their choppiness is much like the sea, which is almost another character in the novel. The Break will resonate with fans of Tim Winton, as Fitzpatrick writes about the natural environment with similar texture and intensity. 

Katie Haydon is a former assistant editor of Books+Publishing and a freelance reviewer. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

Bestsellers this week

52storeytreehouselgFollowing the success of the bestselling The 39-Storey Treehouse, Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton have returned with The 52-Storey Treehouse (Pan). The 13 new ‘storeys’ feature a rocket-powered carrot-launcher, a ninja snail training academy, a high-tech detective agency and a life-size ‘snakes and ladders’ game. The 52-Storey Treehouse­ has moved to the top of this week’s bestsellers chart, after last week debuting outside the top 10 as one of the highest new entries. Personal (Lee Child, Bantam) entered the charts in second spot to be this week’s highest new entry, ahead of four titles in the ‘Minecraft’ series (Egmont). The Eye of Heaven (Clive Cussler & Thomas Perry, Michael Joseph) and Bones Never Lie (Kathy Reichs, William Heinemann) also debuted in the top 10, at seventh and eighth spot respectively—Books+Publishing.

BOOK REVIEW: How to Save the Universe in Ten Easy Steps (Allison Rushby, A&U)

how to save the universeIf Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a 10-year-old boy with an annoying twin sister, then this might be his story. Connor discovers his grouchy twin sister is actually an alien the day before his 10th birthday party. She has been protecting him for the past 10 years because it’s his role to save the universe. But now, intergalactic bounty hunters have discovered his location and are coming to kill him. Naturally, Connor thinks this is all a big joke and he’s being filmed for reality TV, but when events start getting extremely weird, the alien truth becomes hard to ignore. Despite having no discernible talents, apart from knowing the exact time down to the millisecond, Connor must somehow save the world even though he has absolutely no idea how. Throw in a talking dog, some giant slugs and numerous other aliens, and you’ve got a somewhat complicated but quite hilarious intergalactic adventure. Boys and girls aged eight to 10 who like a bit of fantasy with their humour will enjoy this fun romp through space. Despite much strangeness and absurdity, it has a sweet and satisfying charm that will appeal to young fans of Neil Gaiman and Eoin Colfer.

Angela Crocombe is a children’s book specialist at Readings St Kilda. This review first appeared in the Junior Term 3, 2014 supplement of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

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Children’s/YA book awards round-up: September

Among the children’s and YA book awards announced in the past month are: the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards; the Wilderness Society’s Environment Award for Children’s Literature; and the Davitt Awards for crime books by Australian women, which includes categories for YA and children’s books. Shortlists were also announced for the Inky Awards and the Educational Publishing Awards, while a number of children’s and YA books picked up prizes at the Australian Book Design Awards.

Forthcoming children’s/YA book reviews: October to November 2014

» Picture books

Tim and Ed (Ursula Dubosarsky, illus by Andrew Joyner, Viking, October), 4 stars, reviewed by Louise Pfanner
Whale in the Bath (Kylie Westaway, illus by Tom Jellett, A&U, October), 4 stars, reviewed by Margaret Hamilton

» Young readers

Race to the End of the World: The Mapmaker Chronicles (A L Tait, Hachette, October), 3.5 stars, reviewed by Louise Fay
Withering-by-Sea: A Stella Montgomery Intrigue (Judith Rossell, ABC Books, November), 4 stars, reviewed by Fay Helfenbaum

» Young adult

Speed of Light (Joy Cowley, Gecko Press, October), 4 stars, reviewed by Dani Solomon