Review: Helen Garner’s This House of Grief

In 1995, Helen Garner published The First Stone, a non-fiction novel based on a sexual harassment case that occurred at The University of Melbourne’s Ormond College. The novel attracted negative attention for the way in which the author examined the events in question (Gallagher n. d.). Critics condemned Garner, arguing that her prose “undermined the (feminist) cause by seeking out the point of view of a male defendant” (Giles 1997). Garner’s latest release, This House of Grief (2014), sees the former journalist falling into the same familiar habit of empathising with the perpetrator. The new non-fiction account is concerned with the case of Robert Farquharson, the man convicted for the drowning deaths of his three sons on Father’s Day 2005, when the car he was driving flew into a dam in Winchelsea, near Geelong, Victoria. One of the most notorious cases in Australian history, it is safe to assume that almost every media consumer in the country believes with unwavering certainty in either Farquharson’s guilt, or his innocence. Helen Garner, it seems, is the exception to this rule. Writing as an observer of the court case involving trails and appeals that spanned seven years, Garner has provided the Australian public with the inside information behind this tragedy. Her audience is not only comprised of those affected and citizens who are still horrified by the events years after they occurred. The novel reveals itself to be a form of published catharsis. In her meticulous research and self-confessed obsession, This House of Grief has been written equally to answer the reader’s questions, as much as the questions Garner ponders, herself.
    Reading the novel, I became so immersed in the murder case proceedings that I could not prevent myself from discussing the content with those around me. A quick mention of the Farquharson name solicited a leap into the conversation, each person busting to put forth his or her opinion. This phenomenon was an outcome of the publicity the case received, coupled with the familiarity of Garner’s name in the writing community of Australia. As Kerryn Goldsworthy contends, “Her name and its meanings have become part of Australian public culture” (Goldsworthy 1996). A former journalist for Australian newspapers and literary magazines, Garner has the fact-finding skills of a reporter, and the observational talents of a novelist, utilising both competencies in her exploration of the Farquharson case. True crime and non-fiction have become Garner’s signature forms of writing, as evidenced in contemporary novels The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law (2004). These works substantiate Cathy Alexander’s claim that Garner has “made a career out of forensic crime writing” (2012). In The Whites of Their Eyes, David Leser quotes Garner’s long-time publisher, Diana Gribble, stating, “She (Garner) is constantly exploring concepts of honourable behaviour, and how it is possible to live with honour. That’s how I think she stands apart from the rank and file of Australian writing” (Leser 1999). Garner stands out as an Australian commentator and critic of true events, which complements her interest in this case that has become an indelible aspect of our nation’s history. It was the story’s rural setting that engaged the public, shattering illusions of sleepy small towns and a carefree Australian way of life. Winchelsea, says Garner in This House of Grief, is a place so small that “everyone would know your business.” It was with this imagery of a picturesque town that the media recognised an emotive angle, sensationalising Robert Farquharson as a monster who disrupted the peace. What Helen Garner’s impartiality gives back to the audience is the power to see the characters in the tragedy for what they are.
    Describing the landscape in the opening pages, Garner says of Geelong, “We were familiar with its melancholy beauty, the grand smooth sweeps of its terrain.” This connection to the landscape, which is treated as the crime scene in the murder trial, is just one of many emotional resonances that ignited Garner’s curiosity. As she grew up in regional Geelong, the author recalled the sight of the Winchelsea dam in which the children drowned when she heard about the case for the first time. In a subtle reference, the author speaks of her experience with terminated marriages by introducing her companion, saying, “Each of us had found it in herself to endure – but also to inflict – the pain and humiliation of divorce.” Following on from this confessional technique, Garner makes a point to include cameo appearances of her young grandsons in the novel, prompting the audience to compare the boys to the Farquharson brothers. This literary tactic inspires the reader to register the traits that her grandsons share with the drowned victims. In mentioning her grandchildren and her divorce, Garner proves to her audience that she can empathise with the mother of the Farquharson boys, Cindy Gambino, and has a right to tell the family’s story. As a result of former criticism that has suggested Garner has been guilty of “emotional crimes” (Legge 2008), she is careful to make her sympathy known for those affected throughout the trial. Taking a different approach, another book was released in 2013 about the Farquharson case by Megan Norris, entitled, On Father’s Day. Having interviewed and formed a relationship with Cindy Gambino, Norris tells the grieving mother’s story, insisting on Farquharson’s guilt. Garner instead opts for what Delys Bird has labelled “insistent personalisation” – her prose is centred on her own contemplation of the court proceedings, asking questions rather than laying blame.
    As seen in Garner’s constant insertion of her grandsons into her personal reflection, the author continues the child symbolism when discussing Robert Farquharson as he appears in the dock. Garner compares the man to a child in a great number of instances, creating an image of Farquharson that is reminiscent of a scared little boy – “He stood in the box, facing the Crown’s Ms. Forrester with the stooped, appeasing posture of a kid expecting to be told off.” Carefully avoiding branding Farquharson as innocent or guilty, she makes excuses for Farquharson’s actions by repeatedly referring to him as emotionally underdeveloped or of below average intelligence, asking the question, “what had happened to him, or failed to happen to him, that kept him stuck in childhood?” While Garner remains an impartial observer for the majority of the prose, she makes strong efforts to undo the media’s portrayal of Farquharson as a monster. In discussing Farquharson as a common person – “I didn’t know what I was expecting, but he was ordinary. A man” – Garner argues that even if this man has indeed committed an unforgivable act, he remains a real human being. This humanising continues in Garner’s descriptions of the defence lawyer who represented Farquharson throughout his trials, Peter Morrissey, SC. The barrister’s personality and charm fills Garner’s prose, documenting his exchanges – “Again and again he had to be pulled up by the judge for referring to his client as ‘Rob’ instead of ‘Mr. Farquharson’. It embarrassed him but he could not seem to help it.” Much the same as her treatment of the defendant in The First Stone, Garner reveals her nepotism in favour of the underdog, displaying skills of swaying the audience to sympathise with traditionally unlikable characters, while continuing to highlight negative and positive aspects of each party.
    While readers may not agree with Garner’s tactics when discussing the case of Robert Farquharson, it would be difficult to claim that the background information she brings to the case is not effective in influencing the reader. In This House of Grief the facts surrounding the tragedy that occurred on September 4, 2005, are laid bare, giving the Australian public an impartial account of events that was never available in the media’s biased portrayal of circumstances. With Helen Garner as the reader’s neutral guiding light, the antics of the courtroom become interesting, making a narrative consolidated by dense, heavy subject matter an enjoyable read, while still maintaining the severity of the case. Maybe the most prominent matter of discussion throughout Helen Garner’s text is an indirect examination of the Australian legal system, and they way in which emotions can influence judgement. The final passage of This House of Grief speaks of Jai, Tyler and Bailey Farquharson, stating, “Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken. The children’s fate is our legitimate concern. They are ours to mourn. They belong to all of us now.” The magnitude of this case leaves all Australians with a sense of ownership over the children and the story, so it is important that information is given to the public that represents both sides equally. I am still unsure as to where I stand in regards to Farquharson’s guilt or innocence, but as a result of Helen Garner’s labouring, I feel as though I have finally been given adequate information to determine that decision for myself.

References:

Alexander, C 2012, ‘Helen Garner cheats death – unlike some of her subjects’, Crikey, November 23, 2012, .

Bird, D 1996, ‘More Questions About Sex and Power and The First Stone’, Overland 142: 48 – 51.

Gallagher, R n. d., ‘Helen Garner’s The First Stone’, weblog post, rhiannagallagher.com, viewed October 11, 2015, .

Garner, H 2014, This House of Grief, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria.

Garner, H 1995, The First Stone, Picador Pan Macmillan, Sydney, New South Wales.

Garner, H 2004, Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law, Picador Pan Macmillan, Sydney, New South Wales.

Giles, F 1997, Bodyjamming edited by Jenna Mead, reviewed in the Australian Humanities Review (November 1997).

Goldsworthy, K 1996, Australian Writers: Helen Garner, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria.

Legge, K 2008, ‘Truly Helen’, The Australian, March 29, 2008,
.

Leser, D 1999, The Whites in Their Eyes, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, New South Wales.

Norris, M 2013, On Father’s Day, Five Mile Press, Scoresby, Victoria.

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