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 Later, when she realises that the memory of the victim has been superseded by the infamy of his killer, she befriends Joe Cinque’s family in order to tell his side of the story.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.