Helen Garner has really made the true crime and court drama her own, with Joe Cinque’s Consolation, The First Stone, and now This House of Grief. But the tag true crime really doesn’t capture the way Garner approaches these stories. She brings to them her wise, honest and empathetic style, which make them quite different from the usual court room drama.
This House of Grief tells the story of Robert Farquharson, a Victorian father of three sons, who drove his car into a dam on Father’s Day 2005, drowning all three boys. His defence against a charge of murder is that he passed out from a coughing fit and came to underwater in the dam. This story details his first trial where he was found guilty and then the subsequent unsuccessful appeal. Garner documents with amazing skill the detail of the prosecution and defence cases, the workings of the court, and the legal and civilian participants who were there. She manages to distil the most important aspects of the trial, whilst not letting the story get so bogged down in detail that it’s hard to follow. And she includes much of her trademark eye for observation that makes her fiction so wonderful.
Garner talked at the Sydney Writers’s Festival about why she wanted to write the story. She said she’s fascinated, obsessed even, with the darkness inside all of us. She wanted to know what would make a simple aussie bloke like Farquharson do something so horrendous, apparently in response to losing the love of his ex-wife. Its hard to even comprehend how someone could do such a thing to his three innocent children, who he loved more than anyone else. I think Garner did a good job of trying to present the facts of the case objectively, as much as you can do when the central figure has been found guilty twice. But she can’t help but feel an overwhelming sadness when he finally takes the stand in the appeal. She talks about Farquharson describing the last day of his son’s life, about the back scratcher and the photograph they gave him for father’s day.
‘Shocked by the tears that rushed into my eyes, I glanced along the jury,’ she writes. ‘I was not the only one. At that moment I would have given anything to be convinced that he was innocent – and not because I ‘believed in him’, whatever that meant. But because, in spite of everything I had heard and observed and thought in this court, in spite of everything I knew about the ways of the world, it was completely unendurable to me that a man would murder his own children.”
That for me encapsulates why she’s such a wonderful writer. She can capture the inherent darkness in human nature and express just what it is that people feel when they hear about this case. We don’t want to believe that Farquharson murdered his own children by drowning them in a car because its too horrendous to contemplate, but there’s no other explanation.
My own feeling, after reading this book, is that the father of those three boys did deliberately drive the car into the dam, intending to kill his sons and himself, but in the end the survival instinct kicked in and he wasn’t able to take his own life. The House of Grief is an amazing book, both for the technical skill in which it details extraordinarily complicated legal proceedings, and for its inciteful observations into human nature.