Helen Garner
This House of Grief

Reading The House of Grief is like watching a gifted surgeon labour to return a cadaver to life. The expertise demonstrated is something superb. There is the pleasure, entire in itself, of witnessing natural talent and the discipline of decades bend to the task. Yet the effort is misdirected. No amount of application will reanimate the corpse. In the end, for all the elegance of its orchestration, the thing we come to appreciate most is the futility of the exercise.

The real events that inspired Helen Garner’s new work of nonfiction have been widely broadcast. On Father’s Day 2005, Robert Farquharson, a man from country Victoria returning his three sons to the home where they lived with his ex-wife, left the highway and pitched his car into a dam. He escaped the vehicle but his children did not. The police investigation resulted in a murder charge. It was the kind of breaking news that wrested your attention from its daily round just long enough for the dawning implications to make you flinch away again.

Garner felt the same impulse but evidently fought it. She followed Farquharson’s trial from its opening days in 2007 to its denouement in August 2013 when the High Court refused to hear the case, shutting down his last avenue for redress. This House of Grief is an account of the author’s grim devotion to the drawn-out legal process, told from within the dark-panelled confines of Melbourne’s Supreme Court.

The resulting work bears many lineaments of a courtroom drama. The deftness with which Garner sketches the physical presence and psychological make-up of barristers, jurors, expert witnesses, media types, family members and hangers-on would make Honoré Daumier, that great physiognomist of the legal profession, proud:

Criminal barristers like to see themselves as free-spirited adventurers, armed with learning and wit, who gallop out to defend the embattled individual against the dead hand of the state. They love to perform. A rill of ironic laughter bubbles under the surface of their discourse. There is something savage in the greatest of them, and their brilliance is displayed to most devastating effort in cross-examination.

After a stuttering start, Garner quickly grasps the peculiar grammar of the law. She ends up reading the atmosphere of the room with the precision of a barometer. And she describes various battles in the adversarial theatre of the court with the flair of the creative writer she has always been.

Yet she is too honest, too much the Protestant auto-analyst to allow the elegance of her construction to pass without submitting it to metacritique. Garner dwells equally on the days of unrelenting boredom, which, like some judicial dark matter, make up the overwhelming substance of the case. Nor can she help but unpick the rhetorical stitching that clothes her heroic barristers, or refrain during autobiographical interludes from examining her own potential for wrongdoing.

In other words, even as Garner sets out to engross the reader, she lays out signposts warning that “no narrative can remain pure”. The later testimony of Farquharson’s wife and mother of their children, Cindy Gambino, is exemplary in this respect:

At the first trial she had dragged it out of herself with raw, agonised restraint, and people in the court wept with horror and pity. Now, like her hair, the story was being coloured by an element of self-consciousness. Her account had become a recital, with the rhetorical figures and grace notes of a tale polished by many a telling.

What begins as a legal adventure, albeit of a macabre kind, ends up a meditation on the ways in which narratives designed to clarify may actually obscure truth. Gambino’s evolution from loving supporter of the accused to vengeful accuser is matched by Garner’s own motions of mind. She grapples with the possibility that certain particularly feminine stories – about maternal care, protectiveness, trust in masculine decency – have to be unlearned in order to be able to see what is true.

The central drama of This House of Grief lies, then, in Garner’s struggle to acknowledge Farquharson’s likely guilt without severing herself from some essential empathetic urge:

An American mother I read about drove her car full of children into a river; she drowned and so did all her kids except the eldest, a ten year old, who fought his way across her lap and out through a part-open window. He had told police that as the car began to sink his mother had cried out, “I made a mistake. I made a mistake.”

“Was the core of the phenomenon a failure of imagination,” Garner concludes, “an inability to see any further forward than the fantasy of one clean stroke that would put an end to humiliation and pain?” Maybe. But Farquharson does not oblige her in relinquishing whatever secrets he has. She draws and redraws his figure, day after day, month after month, with all the exactitude and acuity she can muster. The result, like a Giacometti portrait, is an ever more elaborate depiction of vacancy.

This House of Grief is a superbly balanced book about a terribly freighted subject: a violation of parental care of the kind that provokes outrage rather than thoughtfulness. It is also an elegant reiteration of many of the themes and concerns that Garner has, over four decades, made her own.

Yet it is sad to see the author lavish so much of her care and intelligence on a man so resistant to interpretation, so illegible to a writer whose accommodation with the world’s darkness has always been reliant on making it explicable through story.

The entire work may be reduced to a single image: wildflower garlands laid by the author at a memorial near the dam where the Farquharson boys drowned, blown away despite Garner’s every effort to weigh them down.  AF

Text, 288pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "Helen Garner, This House of Grief".

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