This House of Grief

30 September 2014 Books

This House of Grief

This House of Grief begins like a bedtime story, “Once there was a hard-working bloke who lived in a small Victorian country town with his wife and their three young sons…” Of course, anyone familiar with how the tale progresses will know that soon it will become a fractured fairytale. And thus it came to pass that, 10 months after his separation from his wife (and on Father’s Day 2005, no less), Robert Farquharson’s car plunged into a dam. He freed himself and swam to the bank. His children however, drowned in the icy waters. He claimed that an extreme coughing fit led to a loss of consciousness at the wheel. Others remained sceptical. A year later Farquharson stood trial on three charges of murder, and in 2007 in the Supreme Court of Victoria, the trial opened.

With the meld of fact and shrewd observation that served her well in previous works like The First Stone (1995) and Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004), Helen Garner continues to impress in her latest journalistic venture. This House of Grief is her account of the long and draining legal processes that ultimately led to Farquharson’s conviction. Sitting in the press gallery, Garner reports on the trial from a deep well of curiosity that only runs dry when the sheer amount of technical information and cross-examination on both sides leads her to suffer from court fatigue. At one stage she ponders: “Surely one did not need a science degree to understand how a car had gone into the dam?”

But to fully convey how the tragedy unfolded, Garner’s book does present a large list of players: as well as witnesses for the prosecution and defence teams, many other secondary characters are included to offer insight into events leading up to that night near Winchelsea.  There are statements from Farquharson’s former partner, paramedics, psychologist, police officers, search-and-rescue divers, even the mechanic who serviced the car.

It’s fascinating to follow Garner’s own wavering opinion. Initially there’s an undercurrent of sympathy to Farquharson’s plight: she notes how he looked “scared, small and terribly lonely” in the courtroom and finds herself thinking “you poor bastard” as she sees him in handcuffs. But later, in the second trial in 2011, she’s forced to admit that “residual fantasies of his innocence [were] dismantled, blow-by-blow and out of his own mouth”. Within its labyrinthine passages that offer much scope for investigation and reflection, This House of Grief is sobering but compelling reading.

This House of Grief is out now.

This article was first published in Ed#467.

One of our writers saw Garner speak about her book at the Melbourne Writers Festival, read about it here

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