‘This House of Grief’ by Helen Garner

September 2014

Welcome to the Monthly Book.

Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview.

This House of Grief – Helen Garner

The Monthly Book for September is master storyteller Helen Garner’s new non-fiction work: the devastating, utterly compelling This House of Grief (Text Publishing).

Garner begins This House of Grief in a time-honoured way, with a phrase that almost seems to be out of a storybook: “Once there was a hard-working bloke who lived in a small Victorian town …” There are shades of what Flaubert does in Madame Bovary, taking the point of view of the humiliated husband who has been left by his wife. She did him wrong, like in a country and western song, and out of rage and shame he killed their three sons on Father’s Day in 2005, driving them into a dam off the highway near their home. Or that is the case the prosecution presented during Robert Farquharson’s two murder trials in the Supreme Court of Victoria.

The defence would claim that Farquharson blacked out at the wheel after a rare complication from a coughing fit, that when he regained consciousness the car was in the dam, and that his ten-year-old son opened a car door and let in the water that was to engulf the car and from which the father would emerge the only survivor.

Which was the true story?

This tragic case is astutely observed by the most wise and expressive of writers. As Garner describes the first time she came upon the children’s graves, she notes that in the seven years to come – as she followed two trials and two appeals – she would regret that she had not simply blessed the children and walked away.

When Garner said she wanted to write about the trial, “people looked at me in silence, with an expression I couldn’t read”. Were they concerned that Garner was entering the heart of darkness that is a father murdering his children for revenge? Or were they suspicious that she would question that view, that she would accept Farquharson’s side of the story? As she said in our interview, recorded at the opening night of the Melbourne Writers Festival in late August, “I think they just disapproved … I think they thought, Oh, she’s soft on men. I think that’s probably what they thought. That’s the kind of stuff people have been saying about me for quite some years now, I believe.”

This House of Grief begins with two epigraphs. Each one either mentions or implies the idea of explanation, for exactly what happened, for how it happened, for why it happened, for how it could have happened. In the end, we might be left with something a little further away from the truth than we might wish. But court cases are supposed to give us a story that on balance we believe about what might have happened.

In the first murder trial, Farquharson’s ex-wife, Cindy Gambino, the mother of the boys, accepted his story that it had all been a tragic accident. She had sworn at the committal hearing that Farquharson had loved his sons. Garner writes, “Since when has loving someone meant that you would never want to kill them?”

The book also provides a fascinating insight into the legal process. Garner describes the awe and the adrenalin she felt when she entered the Supreme Court of Victoria, “this house of grief”, and she sets the stage for the theatre that is a court case – wigs tilted forward, wigs tilted back, the tiny diamond stud in the lobe of the judge’s left ear. Her writing is almost painterly in these sections. The actors – the families of Cindy Gambino and Robert Farquharson, the journalists, the lawyers, the witnesses – all play a role like a Greek chorus, summing up at stages, raising questions that people outside the story are asking too.

Helen Garner observes who looks at whom in the court and what their expressions tell us, and she is a master interpreter of body language, of gesture, of looks and of sighs. She quotes Janet Malcolm:Jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence but in actuality they are studying character.”

As you read This House of Grief, you might like to consider the following:

- Can a court case give us an explanation of what happened or simply the most plausible story? Is this enough if you are looking for justice?

- What do we do with events that are inexplicable?

- Garner was not able to interview any of the central figures. What can we tell of character without interview? Aren’t we just imposing our own experience of people – not these people but people like them?

This Monthly Book for September will have your heart in your mouth, even as you know the outcome of the trials described, and it will leave you wondering what you might have decided had you been on those juries yourself.

Watch the interview

Read the transcript