On the evening of Father’s Day 2005 Robert Farquharson drove his car into a deep dam. Farquharson emerged physically unscathed. His three sons (aged 10, 7 and 2) all drowned. This House of Grief is Helen Garner’s attempt to explain that event, through the prism of Farquharson’s subsequent murder trial.
Garner’s prose is as clear and sharp as a mountain stream. And like a fast flowing creek, the more you look into the depths of her work, the more you see.
I once had the privilege of spending a day in a writing masterclass taught by Helen Garner. It wasn’t until I was driving home, my head full of information and inspiration, that I realised what a gifted teacher she was; realised how gently and effortlessly she had led us through grammatical minefields and ethical complexities. Garner’s critique of our writing pieces was surgical: direct, necessary and pointed. But never unkind or gratuitously personal. Garner writes like she teaches.
This House of Grief is, on the surface, a simple narrative of a trial and a retrial. The courtroom scene is set, we meet the main characters, the narrative and the trial unfold in tandem. Garner never lets us forget, though, that the courtroom is not a ‘scene’, nor that the ‘characters’ are real people in the midst a ghastly event beyond imagining. Garner obviously feels for them all: the bereaved mother of those boys, the lawyers forced to defend the indefensible, the jury. She even manages to pity and empathise with Farquharson, who maintained his innocence throughout, drawing out for her readers his pain and humanity.
Without being the least didactic Garner gently explores this fraught terrain. She remorselessly records the events of the trial, the reactions of each witness, the fatigue of the lawyers, the quiet attention and sometimes boredom of the jury. She suggests, she shows, she wonders. She lays out the events leading up to the drownings and following on from them. She doesn’t shirk from describing the car going into the dam and the boys drowning but her approach is respectful, and edged with her own pain.
This is a book worth reading twice. Once for the narrative and the second time to try and see how it was done.
Listen to Garner’s interview with Richard Fidler on ABC Local
There is also a terrific review by David Marr in the September issue of The Monthly, but it’s unavailable online.