This House of Grief by Helen Garner

A few years ago I read a novel by Helen Garner that was so vivid and so real that I had to remind myself that it wasn’t real, it was fiction. I picked this book up on the strength of her name. It’s a work of non fiction, telling the story of a tragedy and the court cases that ensued, and it is so very well written and ‘plotted’ that I could have quite easily believed that I was reading a very fine work of fiction

On a spring evening in 2005, a car veered across the Princes Highway in Victoria, Australia, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. It filled with water and sank to the bottom. The man who had been driving the car freed himself and swam to safety, but his three passengers — all young children — couldn’t escape and they all drowned.

22814793Was it an terrible accident, or was it a deliberate act. Did Robert Farquharson intentionally drive into the dam in to kill his three young sons, who he was returning to their mother – his former wife after a Father’s Day visit?

His wife believed him when he said that it was an accident. He said that he had suffered a coughing fit so severe that he lost control of the car. He said that her had tried to save their sons, but everything had happened so quickly and been so traumatic that his memory was gone.

She supported him when he was arrested and charged with three counts of murder. Her family and his own family stood behind him too.

Helen Garner followed the story in the news, and she was drawn to the trial, at the Supreme Court of Victoria in August 2007. ‘This House of Grief’ sets out the court proceedings, and her observations, experiences and reactions, clearly and precisely.

It’s difficult to read the story of such a terrible family tragedy; but it’s more difficult to look away. The arguments were so very finely balanced, and I would see from the start that no matter which of the arguments prevailed there would always be some points, important points, that could probably never be explained. As the court case unfolded I began to lean to one particular argument, but I knew that I didn’t know, that I couldn’t now.

The pace is stately, and there are pages of details about technicalities: the trajectory of the car, the marks on the road, the medical condition known as cough syncope …. it was mind-numbing but it was compelling, because so much hung on it.

The author’s observations were lucid and intelligent; she understood that so many lives had been touched and changed. The two men who arrived at the scene, who did their best to help, but who felt they might have handled things better; the divers who struggled too recover the car and the bodies from the depths of the dam; the woman who passed the car before it reached the damn, who had looked across and seen the passengers in that car; the jury who had so much to evaluate.

Her own thoughts and reactions, her emotional journey through the court proceedings are there too; real and vivid. I never doubted her honesty; I appreciated her intelligence and sensitivity; and I understood her desire to understand what had happened and to see justice prevail.

The writing is lovely; the story is compelling; and I turned the pages very quickly.

This true story is going to haunt me for a very long time.

18 responses

  1. Wow this sounds fascinating. I read a novel by Helen Garner a few years ago too – The Spare Room, beautifully written I seem to remember. This is one I should look out for.

  2. I’m so glad that Garner is garnering (see what I did there?) an international following. She’s an extraordinary writer. I love how she tries to get down into the real nitty gritty of a case & how she refuses to demonise.

    Great review.

    • She is wonderful. She doesn’t have a very high profile here, but she is publishes when sadly any other interesting authors from other parts of the English speaking world aren’t.

      Are there any other of her books you’d particularly recommend?

      • Sadly for me, house of grief was my first Garner book, although I read a lot of her articles and op ed pieces over the years. She is also a regular attendee at the local Writer’s Festivals.

        From what I’ve read and heard, spare room will be my next.

  3. I read The Spare Room last year and resolved then to read this book at some point, even though the death of children is always hard for me to read about. I wondered whether it mattered that the accident happened in Australia, whether that would make it a “local” book. But it doesn’t sound like it made a difference in your reading experience.

    • It was sad to read, but the author was sensitive and respectful of the family’s feelings. Australian court proceedings seemed very much like British ones – not that I’m an expert – but the focus is on the evidence and the human story, which could have happened anywhere.

  4. I read about this somewhere else and remember being intrigued. You make it sound very compelling, Jane!

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