On 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.