Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2014.
One spring evening in 2005, a car veered across the Princes Highway in rural Victoria, Australia, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. The male driver escaped; all three passengers — aged 10, 7 and 2 — were unable to get out and drowned.
Was it an accident, or did Robert Farquharson deliberately drive the vehicle into the dam in order to kill his three young sons, whom he was returning to their mother after an access visit on Father’s Day?
The police thought the latter. They charged him with three counts of murder, and he was tried at the Supreme Court of Victoria in August 2007. This House of Grief examines the court case in exacting detail.
I’m not going to chart all the dizzying twists and turns of the case — that’s what the book is for — but Helen Garner proves a kind and competent guide throughout. Her observations are often incisive and cutting, and I like the way she explores the accused’s back story and adds in extra detail gleaned from conversations she has with members of his family and other witnesses.
Much of the detail that happens inside the courtroom is soporific owing to the technical nature of the case — the speed of the car when it left the road, what sort of pattern the tyre treads left, what the skid marks proved and so on — which makes for an occasionally frustrating read, but Garner is at her best when she focuses on the people. Here’s how she describes the jury, all bored out of their brains by that aforementioned technical detail:
Their eyelids drooped. Their necks grew loose with boredom; they were limp with it, barely able to hold themselves erect. Once I glanced over and saw four of them in a row, their heads dropped on the same protesting angle towards their left shoulders, like tulips dying in a vase.
I read this book in one blistering fever of furious page-turning — or should I say Kindle button-clicking? — on a wet Saturday eager to discover answers to my questions: Did Farquharson deliberately kill his children? Was it a failed suicide bid? Or was it a freak accident, caused by him having a coughing fit at the wheel? By the end, I felt completely wrung out. It was a feeling I couldn’t shake off for days; the story had really wormed its way into my psyche and deeply affected me.
To leave such a mark on the reader in the wake of completing the book is testament to Garner’s skill as a writer and journalist. And yet her reportage style, in which she inserts herself into the story, often comes in for criticism. But it’s a style I quite like. Her all-too human reactions and her inner-most thoughts are there on the paper for all to see — removing the illusion that the journalism is utterly objective — and it feels very much as if she’s going on a journey of discovery and you’re coming along for the ride.
Here’s an example of how her thoughts and reactions become part of the narrative:
This testimony filled me with scepticism, yet I longed to be persuaded by it—to be relieved of the sick horror that overcame me whenever I thought of Farquharson at the dam, the weirdness of his demeanour, the way it violated what I believed or hoped was the vital link of loving duty between men and their children. And, as I listened, the phantom of failed suicide shimmered once more into view. Nobody in this whole five-week ordeal had yet said anything that could lay it to rest.
While I knew of the Farquharson case — I remember being shocked when I read the initial news story on The Age online all those years ago — I hadn’t followed it closely, so reading this book was very much a journey of discovery for me. I’m not sure how it works if you already know the outcome of the case (perhaps Australian readers can enlighten me?), but for me it was a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, always intriguing and passionately written read. I like that Garner is open and honest about her fury, disbelief and sheer inability to comprehend certain aspects of the accused’s behaviour, because they were the reactions I had to… and I wasn’t even sitting in the court room.
Unless you live in Australia, This House of Grief is currently available to purchase in ebook form only. It will be published in paperback in the UK next month and in the USA in April.
UPDATE: This edited extract published on The Australian website will give you a taster of the book.