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

‘This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial’ by Helen Garner

This-House-of-Grief

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.

In-court guide

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.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Hybrid Publishers, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Hollingworth, Setting

‘The Colour of the Night’ by Robert Hollingworth

The-colour-of-night

Fiction – paperback; Hybrid Publishers; 321 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I first came to the UK in 1998 and told people I came from Melbourne, the first thing they wanted to talk about was the Australian soap Neighbours, which is set there. At that time Brits were such fans of the show it was screened twice daily. I still remember staying in a youth hostel in Glasgow and being holed up in my room by a backpacker from Northern Ireland who knew all the characters and storylines inside out but mistakenly thought many of the locations, including the suburb Erinsborough, were real places.

I mention this because if Neighbours is your only reference for what life in the Melbourne suburbs is like then this book by Robert Hollingworth will shatter all your illusions — but in a good way.

The Colour of the Night follows the lives of a group of neighbours living in a terrace of three houses on Frederick Street in an inner-city suburb. They don’t know each other when the novel opens but by the end they’re all familiar with one another in ways that are sometimes surprising and sometimes shocking.

Meet the neighbours

Stefanie and Simon are married artists, with two children — 18-year-old Jess, a Goth with a drug habit who self-harms, and James, who lives in a bungalow in the back garden and has a job in roadworks.

Next door lives divorcée Adele, who has given up a career in nursing to make more money as an escort, and her son, Elton, who has dropped out of university and spends his entire time online.

Then there is Nikos, a Greek landlord, who rents out the terraced house on the corner to two tenants: Arman, a refugee from Afghanistan who now drives a taxi, and Benton, an Englishman who has an unhealthy interest in children.

Drawing all these neighbours together is Shaun, an 11-year-old boy, orphaned by the Black Saturday bush fires. He has a great affinity for nature — “He entered the bush as other children entered an interactive game, although Shaun’s console control was little more than a snapped stick, his keyboard the whole forest, his mouse a mouse” — so when he moves to the city to live with his aunt, Adele, and cousin, Elton, it comes as somewhat of a shock.

Technological advance

The author, who takes his time to introduce each of these well-drawn characters chapter by chapter, explores many themes in this intriguing novel, including the city versus the country, and nature versus digital technology. He deftly builds up a series of interconnections between everyone (which occasionally relies on a smidgen too much coincidence, but that’s by the by) and in doing so shows how the concept of community in the real world has often been lost, perhaps because we’re too busy building up our social networks online.

There are minor disasters — a DIY basement excavation has repercussions for the entire terrace, for instance —  a blossoming love affair and a case of adultery, but Hollingworth doesn’t resort to cheap operatics: he keeps things fairly restrained and, to his credit, doesn’t let his narrative succumb to predictable outcomes.

It feels like a thoroughly contemporary novel, focussing as it does on how quickly our world is moving in terms of technology. This exchange between Elton and Shaun, whom are just eight years apart in age, is but one example:

… Shaun asked on an impulse, ‘Elton, what did you do where you were my age?’
‘What I do now, I guess. But the computer games were pretty basic. Google was new, no Instagram, no Twitter or Vine, no Tumblr or Kik or…’
‘What did you do when you were five?’
Elton tried to think. ‘It was a different world then, Shaun. You couldn’t do stuff that we take for granted today. Just 64 kilobytes. Unbelievable.’

The Colour of the Night also asks important questions about spirituality, our connections with the natural world and our relationship to art and culture. It’s filled with great dialogue, intriguing characters (with even more intriguing back stories) and brilliant descriptions of people and places. But when all is said and done it’s just a great story well told about contemporary life in modern Australia. And, needless to say, it’s far more authentic — and entertaining — than any episode of Neighbours.

Please note that you won’t find The Colour of the Night in book stores outside of Australia. However, you can order a copy direct from the publisher or buy an electronic edition from Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Joan London, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Good Parents’ by Joan London

GoodParents

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 369 pages; 2009.

Australian author Joan London is probably best known for her novel Gilgamesh, which was published in 2001 and garnered critical acclaim in Australia, the UK and USA. The Good Parents, published seven years later, is her second novel.

Missing teenager

When the story begins we see events unfold through the eyes of 18-year-old Maya, a naive country girl from Western Australia (WA), who is working as a personal assistant in Melbourne. She’s having an affair with her much older boss, Maynard,whose wife has cancer. When Maynard’s wife dies, he decides to shut up shop and head elsewhere, possibly to Asia, taking Maya with him.

But instead of following Maya’s storyline, the book dramatically switches to that of her parents, the beautiful Toni and the dreamy artistic Jacob, who arrive in Melbourne expecting to spend a couple of weeks with their teenage daughter. But she has gone and not even her flatmate seems to know where she might be.

Under the guise of searching for her, Toni and Jacob go sightseeing instead. But when Jacob injures his foot, he is confined indoors, and for some inexplicable reason Toni heads to a Buddhist retreat. This allows both to reflect on their lives, including their childhoods in WA and their subsequent meeting and fleeing city life together in the 1960s.

Their individual stories, which gently unfold in alternate chapters, reveal how both have never had the chance to live up to their full potential, except maybe as parents (hence the title).

Richly layered novel

This is a richly layered story of two people caught up in generational change, whomade poor decisions (either  by choice or circumstance) — Toni married the shady Cy Fisher, while Jacob never followed his dream to be a writer and distracted himself with unimportant work whenever crucial events occurred in his life in order not to think about them. Their own children seem just as perplexed about the real world.

** SPOILER ALERT **

Eventually, the novel returns to Maya, who is living in Brisbane with an increasingly distant and violent Maynard. The book’s resolution, in which Maya is rescued by Cy Fisher, does rely on a somewhat preposterous and unlikely series of coincidences.

** END OF SPOILER ALERT **

And if it wasn’t for this poor ending, I would have heartily recommended this book to all and sundry. But note, this is the only weak point in this rather beaut novel.

For another, much more intellectual, take on this novel, please see Lisa of ANZLitLover’s review.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Lisa Lang, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Utopian Man’ by Lisa Lang

Utopian-man

Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 264 pages; 2010.

What a lovely surprise this Australian book turned out to be!

Lisa Lang’s debut novel, Utopian Man, was joint winner of the 2009 Australian/Vogel Literary Award. It is based on the life of  Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a legendary eccentric who built an amazing retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s.

His pièce de résistance was a fabulous three-storey book arcade, supposedly filled with a million books, where readers were encouraged to sit and browse and use like a library. This was later expanded to include a tea room, a conservatory and a live monkey display. Bands would perform regular lunch-time concerts there, too.

And if that wasn’t enough, Cole also installed a printing press to publish pamphlets (often political or issue-based) and his own books, mainly for children — indeed, many Australian readers of a certain vintage will be familiar with Cole’s Funny Picture Book, which was filled with poetry and puns and humorous drawings. (You can read this in its entirety on Project Gutenberg.)

An eccentric’s life

This novel doesn’t really have a plot other than to chart E.W. Cole’s life in two-yearly increments. This allows you to see how his business expanded from the time of the arcade’s opening to his death in 1918 and gives you glimpses into his blissfully happy family life — he married a faithfully devoted much younger wife, Eliza, with whom he had six children, and they all lived in a rather lavish apartment (what we, today, might call a penthouse) above the book arcade.

But the narrative, which is written in a lovely Victorian-style prose, is far from predictable. There are little scandals and tragedies everywhere — including the unexpected death of Ruby, Cole’s 8-year-old daughter, to scarlet fever; an older son who becomes an opium addict; and an employee who steals the arcade’s takings — and there are brushes with extra-marital affairs, spiritualism and politics. In fact, Alfred Deakin, whom Australians know as the “father of federation”, has a starring role (he was a close friend of Cole’s, though that friendship came to a bitter end when Deakin became the second Prime Minister of Australia and helped usher in the White Australia Policy).

Interspersed throughout are flashbacks that recount Cole’s time on the goldfields, where he befriended a Chinese man when racism — the “yellow peril” — was rife. But while Cole made enough money on the diggings to escape — he set up a market stall selling books in Melbourne, the first step towards much greater commercial success — there are hints that something dark and troubling happened while he was searching for gold. You have to read a good two-thirds of the book to find out what that was — and I’m not about to reveal that here.

Melbourne’s history

One of the most successful aspects of Utopian Man is the way in which Lang captures the mood and spirit of an ever-changing Melbourne during the late Victorian and early Federation periods. She manages to evoke a particular time and place so effortlessly that history truly comes alive in these pages. Here we have a provincial town turned into a booming metropolis thanks to the gold rush, but then the depression hits, the banks close and destitution is on every corner — but Cole, good-hearted man that he is, refuses to make any of his staff redundant and chooses instead to expand his business rather than consolidate it.

Indeed, I came away with the impression that Cole was not only hugely generous — perhaps to the point of being weak — he was a man before his time. He champions equality for all and cannot understand when people poo-poo his idea that the colour of a person’s skin does not matter, we are all human underneath. He seems, in many ways, to be almost too good to be true.

All in all, Utopian Man is a charming book, which is an utter delight to read. It will especially appeal to fans of Victorian-era novels and those who love books (I guess that’s all of you, then). And the best bit is it is readily available outside of Australia in both ebook and paperback editions — hoorah!

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Autumn Laing’ by Alex Miller

Autumn_laing

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 446 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Most non-Australian readers of this blog will not have heard of Alex Miller, much less read anything by him. Some may even have mixed him up with British writer Andrew Miller or A.D. Miller. This is a great shame, because Alex Miller, who is a London-born Australian (he emigrated when he was 16), writes extraordinarily lush literary novels which deserve a wide audience. It’s no exaggeration to say he has won practically every writing prize going in Australia — and was the overall winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 — so it’s about time the rest of the world caught up.

His latest novel, Autumn Laing, is his tenth book and has just been published in the UK (the Kindle edition is available in the USA). It’s a wonderfully confident, wise and funny novel, filled with beautiful language and unforgettable characters.

The price of illicit love

Just as Irish writer Sebastian Barry rescued his aunt’s untold history and fictionalised it so vividly in On Canaan’s Side, Miller does something similar with the story of Sunday Reed, an art patron who became the jilted lover of Australian artist Sidney Nolan. In this fictionalised account, Sunday is “played by” Autumn Laing, and Sidney Nolan’s role goes to the talented but struggling artist Pat Donlan.

The narrative is shaped as a personal confession — “my last chance to tell the truth” — written by Autumn over the course of a year. She is 85 years old and her conscience is eating away at her. Recently, she thought she saw Pat Donlan’s wife — the woman she wronged 53 years earlier — coming out of the local chemist shop, and now her mind is thinking back to that time in her life when she met Pat and started a rather erotic affair with him.

But this is more than a story about their affair and the price of illicit love; it also charts the changing face of Australian art — and the desperate need for it to be recognised in Europe — in the late 1930s, and how so much of an artist’s success was truly dependent on patrons to fund and champion it.

A brilliantly witty narrator

The best bit about Autumn Laing, aside from its intelligence, poignancy and wit, is the main character who is one of the funniest and most intriguing fictional creations I have come across in a long while. She’s feisty, cantankerous — and farts a lot, mainly because she consumes copious amount of cabbage on a daily basis.

Sadly, Autumn’s hugely engaging first-person narrative does not run for the entire length of the novel. Instead, the view point changes regularly and some of it is written in the third person as Autumn imagines scenes and events that happened when she was not present — for instance, the meeting between Pat and her husband, when Pat visited him in Melbourne to beg for money to support his art work. Initially, this is disorientating for the reader, but once you get over the initial shock that Autumn’s voice is having a momentary rest, you get used to it — and then you look forward to her interjections, which occur in alternate chapters.

I spent a good two weeks with Autumn (I was reading other things in between) and hugely enjoyed her company, and I was really sad to see her go when I came to the end.

Autumn Laing was shortlisted for the 2011 Manning Clark House National Cultural Awards (Individual category) and the 2012 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature Fiction Award, and longlisted for the 2012 ALS Gold Medal and 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award.