Australia, Author, Book review, Helen Garner, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ by Helen Garner


Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 328 pages; 2010.

On Sunday, October 26, 1997, Joe Cinque, a young engineer living in Canberra, died in his own bed of a massive overdose of Rohypnol and heroin. His girlfriend, Anu Singh, and her best friend, Madhavi Rao, were charged with his murder.

In this book, first published in 2004, Australian journalist and novelist Helen Garner follows the twists and turns of Singh’s and then Rao’s criminal trials as they unfold. Later, when she realises that the memory of the victim has been superseded by the infamy of his killer, she befriends Joe Cinque’s family in order to tell his side of the story.

Her account is unflinching and deeply moving. At times it is profoundly shocking, and no more so than the opening chapter which transcribes the emergency call made to the Canberra Ambulance Service by Singh on the night of her boyfriend’s death. She is so hysterical she cannot even get the address of their home correct. Meanwhile Joe Cinque, lying diagonally across a double bed, stops breathing and chokes on his own vomit.

The book is told in narrative style, almost as if you are reading Garner’s personal diary — she records everything from the hotels she’s staying in to the people she befriends in the court room — but undercuts this with information gathered by interview, research and legal hearings. This makes it imminently readable, because she has a great gift for storytelling — and, in turn, of making you care about the people she writes about.

But from the outset Garner admits that her reasons for writing the book were an ethical minefield — and that many people, including close friends, warned her against doing so. She knows that there are people — the victim’s family, the accused’s family — who will be hurt by what she writes. “If your daughter was mixed up in a thing like this, would you want a book to be written about it?” an acquaintance warns her. He goes on:

“You think that book about sexual harassment* got you into trouble? This would be much, much worse. The person who’s murdered stays the same, or even gets better — becomes a martyr. But the person who’s killed somebody goes on and on being speculated about.”

But while Garner might have had her doubts about the project, she wasn’t going to be easily persuaded.

But wait. Hang on a minute. […] At the end of every argument, every doubt, stood the fundamental fact of the matter. Joe Cinque was dead.

What further hurt might I inflict? What right did I have? Yet surely if you kill someone — if you are intimately involved in a situation that ends in a death — you forfeit your right to a polite turning away. You have blazed your way into the collective awareness. The rest of us have to think about you. We need to work out what you mean, what should be done about you.

Interestingly, Garner had only been informed about the case mid-way through Anu Singh’s second trial in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Supreme Court, but she couldn’t resist attending.

It was a confused drive that had been firing me, so far — first, curiosity, then a repelled fascination — even an identification — with Anu Singh; then, as I came to know the Cinques, a contagion of horrified grief.

That quote pretty much sums up the emotional change I went through as I read this book. Once I got a handle on the basic (surreal) facts of the crime, my intrigue gave way to shock. What motivated such a bright law student, with her whole life ahead of her, to commit such a violent act against the man she presumably loved?

The answer is not clear cut. Singh’s motivations are muddled — and her excuse, that she killed Joe so that he would not have to witness her own suicide, seems ludicrous. Any wonder then that witness testimony and Garner’s own investigations demonstrated that Singh had a narcissistic personality and was prone to dramatics?

But where does Joe Cinque stand in this? Family and friends suggest that he was besotted with Singh even though most of them were unimpressed by her. Garner makes a good attempt to shift the focus towards him, to show that he did not deserve to die in this manner.

My over-riding impression of Joe Cinque’s Consolation is that this somewhat bizarre murder, a case that was truly stranger than fiction, has left countless people reeling in its wake. Pain, confusion and grief resonate off the page, whether it be Garner’s own personal reactions, or the reactions of Joe Cinque’s (grieving) family or Singh’s (bewildered) family.

The book throws a light on everything from moral culpability to the failure of an adversarial legal system to acknowledge the rights of the victim. It is a thought-provoking and unsettling read.

As an aside, if you are curious like me, you may well ask why there is an apple on the cover, because it seems like such an innocuous object to illustrate “a true story of death, grief and the law”. It turns out that one of the crime scene photographs showed six Granny Smith apples sitting on the bench in the kitchen that Joe Cinque and Anu Singh once shared. Of this image, Garner writes:

It was jarring to see their intense, gleaming green, the fresh green of childhood — as if these people, with their poisoned ‘dinner parties’, their horrid dramas, could never have performed an act as ordinary as cutting, peeling and eating an apple.

Please note that Joe Cinque’s Consolation doesn’t appear to be available outside of Australia, although you can track down secondhand copies via Amazon Marketplace and Abe Books. Alternatively you can download the eBook version direct from the Pan Macmillan Australia website or register your interest at the Book Depository.

* The First Stone, published in 1995.

17 thoughts on “‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ by Helen Garner”

  1. Sounds fascinating, and just my kind of nonfiction: well-researched, but in a narrative voice. I like the way you describe that; it absolutely makes it appeal to me. I recently read Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills, and it sounds like these two books are very much alike. Just from your review, I’d recommend one to a reader who liked the other. I wrote about it here:
    Thanks for the good write-up; this sounds like a very interesting book, and case.


  2. Wow, this book sounds rather incredible. I have only read Graner’s fictional work, and only one of those ‘The Spare Room’ which I thought was incredible. I thought her writing was incredible in that and it sounds like in her non-fiction she has the same power. One to maybe look for on certain websites as you mentioned. Sounds like a very strange case for true life crime, a genre I shouldnt like but do.


  3. One of the interesting things about Garner, I think, is her habit of putting herself at fault when she writes — I mean that she emphasises her flaws, her biases, her limited point of view (a constant use of ‘I’: I thought this, I felt that, I don’t know what went on behind that door), her insensitivity, her cruelty. To write is to adopt a position of command (the reader is reading your words, and no one else’s, not the victim’s, not the words of the family; the writer is the person who has won, like a prize, your attention) and she works against that idea, she takes on the commanding perspective and then she battles it. I wonder if, in this respect, she could be compared to Montaigne, if she could be put in that category of writers whose grand and overriding purpose is to comprehend their own fallibility.


  4. I hadnt heard of the case either, Stu, and I was living in Oz at the time. Its a fascinating crime though – quite absurd but v. tragic. Singh planned the whole thing as a farewell party – she wanted to kill Joe, then top herself, a weird kind of suicide pact, except she forgot to tell Joe he was going to die alongside her. If thats not bizarre and criminal, I dont know what is!


  5. Totally agree. Cant compare her to Montaigne, because I have never read him, but Garner is very up front about her personal prejudices and biases. I like that in a writer. I like that in this book she wrrestles with her conscience, but shares those internal debates with us. Journalism purports to be objective (and I should know, given I am a journo) but it is a fallacy to think we can park our subjectiveness and personal feelings/reactions at the door.


  6. This sounds excellent. Was the author successful in trying to understand what the relationship was that existed between the victim and the murderer?
    A few years ago there was a weird murder case I read about involving an engineer who brought home a prostitute to live with him. No one really knew what went wrong, but he ended up tied in a chair and strangled with a telephone cord. Weird.


  7. Funnily enough, I’m pretty sure that I once read an interview with Garner in which she name-checked Janet Malcolm as an inspiration. I read Malcolm’s The Journalist & The Murder a few years ago (reviewed on here somewhere, but I’m too lazy to hunt it out) and thought it absolutely wonderful. I’ll be sure to check your review of Iphigenia in Forest Hills. Thanks for the link.


  8. Of course no-one will ever truly know what the relationship was like between Singh and Cinque, but Garner suggests that Cinque was probably genuinely in love — Singh was intelligent, from a respectable family, good looking, well mannered, confident etc. In fact, one of Cinque’s old girlfriends is quoted as saying: “I think at the start she probably came across as confident and strong. He would have been attracted to that. She must have seemed stable, and warm. Loving. And when she showed her true colours, he couldn’t abandon her.”


  9. *chuckle*
    Sue at Whispering Gums says that Garner polarises readers, and I’m in the camp of people who think this book was appalling. I had my doubts about what she did with The First Stone, but this is the book that made me turn away from Garner’s writing for good. I think her ‘habit of putting herself at fault’ is a way of engaging readerly sympathy, of getting her readers ‘on side’ rather than have them engage with the ethical questions involved in her exploration of this case.


  10. Yes, I was aware you weren’t a fan! I have to admit there were bits here that made me cringe, and even though she admits that she was curious about Singh, it’s quite obvious from the off that she takes an immediate dislike to her and has already decided that she’s guilty. But… but… she also explains this in her writing. She knows that she shouldn’t be so judgemental. And it’s that kind of honesty which I like and admire, even if I might not agree with it.
    I read The First Stone when it first came out. I read it in an entire day — and loved it. But I was a lot younger and I have often wondered how I would receive it now 15 years down the line. I know my flatmate at the time, a staunch feminist, hated it. We had many (friendly) arguments about it in the kitchen! LOL.


  11. Montaigne is all I, I, I, as well, and he lets you in on the secret of his mortal fallibility by giving you a tour of his kidney stones. Garner doesn’t have the kidney stones but she has his habit of asking, “Where am I coming from? Am I stubborn here? Am I despicable? Am I incomprehensible? Are there other points of view?” (“When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not playing with me rather than I with her?” wonders Montaigne. That’s one thing Garner doesn’t have in common with him, a sense of play and pleasure.)
    Reading First Stone, and Joe Cinque, I wonder if she feels drawn to these cases because they’re insoluble, if she goes searching for answers here precisely because it seems the least likely place she can uncover them. (Maybe she says so in the books but I don’t have them here to check.) The question of Singh’s motivation is unanswerable; the murderer herself can’t answer it, and nor can the people outside her, who might have been able to establish a more distant and simple perspective. The case is ludicrous, as you say, “surreal,” “bizarre,” weirdly pointless — murder is such a climactic event that it seems as though this should have unified or solidified something, some question, as it does in murder mysteries (the problem solved, we learn that the murderer wanted to inherit her uncle’s millions, or that he hated women because his mother used to starve him, or that they were members of a violent gang), or in news stories (it turns out the dead husband was a swinger leading a double life, and this is made to appear like a solution) — it should have brought matters into focus (climaxes are vehicles for focus), but nothing coalesces, not even the author, everything puddles around in a marsh, and she says, “I am an inhabitant of that marsh, aren’t we all?”


  12. I was absolutely diverted by thus book even though Garner made me so mad, as she did in The first stone, because I found her subjectivity just a little too much despite what you and Pykk/DKS discussed.
    Funnily enough Guy, if you are reading the comments, Joe was an engineer.
    I think Garner does get to their relationship a bit. My reading was that Joe was probably a somewhat naive country boy (from Newcastle) but a pretty traditional Italian family, and Anu was a troubled girl. Garner does explain some of Anu’s background … As I recollect she had some issues perhaps like OCD and eating disorders. There’s a point where her father talks about having tried to call the university because he was concerned about her but of course the university wouldn’t engage with him at all because she’s not longer deemed a child. None of this excuses her but I think Garner could have been a little more analytical on this.
    There’s a whole lot in this book about moral culpability as Kimbofo says and duty of care, this latter relating particularly to the role of friends.
    As Kimbofo says, an uncomfortable read but one you cannot be neutral about (eh Lisa?)


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