Book Review: This House of Grief by Helen Garner

I don’t read a lot of true crime but just finished Helen Garner’s work, This House of Grief. I know some people find the genre too hard because of the voyeuristic nature of it, or because they cannot bear to hear about the terrible things people are capable of doing to one another. The genre is often criticised for being disrespectful to victims and their families, an argument that primarily revolves around issues of consent, appropriation, representation and concerns when stories are embellished for the purposes of drama.

Those who do like true crime reference its value in providing insight into, and an understanding of, the inner workings of the legal system and human behaviour. There have been instances of true crime pieces shining a light on forgotten cases and having an extraordinary impact, such as facilitating the resolution of unsolved crimes or the reopening of cold case investigations. Rachael Brown’s, Trace, a true crime podcast series about the cold case of the murder of single mother Maria James at the back of her bookshop in 1980 resulted in a new coronial investigation. Katherine Kovacic’s historical fiction novel, The Portrait of Molly Dean, based on a 1930 unsolved murder delivers a sensitive remembrance for a largely unknown young woman who’s life might otherwise have been forgotten.

This House of Grief by Helen Garner is a non fiction true crime story about the murder trial of Robert Farquharson. Farquharson was charged after the car he was driving left the road and crashed into a dam outside of Winchelsea, Victoria and resulted in the death of his three children on Father’s Day. Farquharson was convicted to three terms of life imprisonment without parole in 2007. The original conviction was overturned in 2009 but a retrial again found him guilty of murder and he was sentenced to life imprisonment with a 33 year minimum.

Garner never interviewed Farquharson but did attend both trials as part of her process of writing the book. The trial and re-trial form the narrative spine of the novel in which Garner herself is both a witness to events, and a character within the text. The story blends Garner’s personal experience of the harrowing trial with the procedural formality of the legal system. Her her own emotional responses to the unfolding evidence, and the mundanities of her everyday life run along side the factual reporting of the trials. It is written with the calm eloquent voice of an observer equipped with the exceptional skills of a fiction author and a fearless honesty. Garner strives for an empathic understanding of the terrible event as the rational, ordered legal system tries to make sense of it and find the truth at the centre of all the swirling grief. She lays her own and others emotions, prejudices, and preconceived notions of human behaviour bare, challenging their intractable nature and unreliability on the page.

As Garner records and critiques the courtroom drama and her own conflicting responses to it, she describes in expressive detail impressions of the people she encounters in appearance, language and tone, the mood of the room, the surreptitious glances and subtle shifts in body language. When the evidence leans toward a guilty verdict Garner clings to the possibility of reasonable doubt because she doesn’t want to believe a father could be capable of intentionally killing his three children. When rebuked by a barrister friend, she reflects on the question of why lawyers always make her feel stupid. It seems to be a comment on gendered views where the legal system is masculine and certain, but she is feminine and tentative.

Garner has received both praised and criticism for this work and other true crime books she has written (Joe Cinque’s Consolation; The First Stone). I found This House of Grief a fascinated and compellingly intimate insight into Garners inner world. In striving to be objective she had to wade through confusion, doubt and sudden flights of compassion or repulsion she felt for the subjects of her study, and her own responses to those feeling.

Ultimately This House of Grief raised more questions for me than it answered – about the fallibility of the legal system and the ambiguity in taking a highly technical procedural process and asking ordinary emotion laden laypeople to make a judgement of certainty about what they hear; about our societies insistence on imposing gender stereotypes that sometimes turn out men so incapable of managing their own emotional turmoil they carry out terrible acts in some misconceived belief it will soothe their own pain; about women unable to reconcile the possibility that love and vengeance can coexist in a way that can make the ones they love capable of both great heroism and of terrible violence; about how our own social conditioning, past experiences and emotional worlds shape how we perceive and interpret what goes on around us; and how our individual prejudices and beliefs shape what we can and cannot bear to hear and believe about the world.

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