Here’s the thing when I read true crime: I struggle to withhold my own verdict. I struggle not to cast myself as judge, jury, observer. At the same time, I really try to keep an open mind, willing the author to show me aspects of the story that haven’t already been cemented by the newspapers, 60 Minutes or similar. I’m actively avoiding sharing my own judgement in regards to the Farquharson case, the subject of Helen Garner’s latest, This House of Grief, short of saying that it’s a deeply tragic story.
In keeping the focus on Garner’s writing, I’ll start with the fact that I couldn’t put this book down. Although sometimes I simply had to because her methodical descriptions of the crime were truly gut-wrenching.
In choosing to report some of the minutiae of what was a six-week trial, and making no secret of the fact that evidence is often mind-numbingly boring, Garner sets up the courtroom scene in an interesting way – for the most part, she is a detached onlooker but in between descriptions of tyre marks and coughing fits there are bits of herself – her knitting, her grandchildren, her friend’s recent divorce – and there’s her sharp focus on the players involved, as opposed to the evidence. And it is these things that allow This House of Grief to leapfrog most true crime, and we listen to Garner because she is a terrific writer –
“No matter how earnestly I strove to grasp it, his cross-examination felt cloudy and insubstantial. The material itself was intractable. It was fiddly, manically detailed, and catastrophically lacking in narrative. It made me – and, by the looks of them, also the jury – feel panicky and stupid.”
I read (and enjoyed) both The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation although this one was different – Garner gives herself distance and remains largely impartial, as opposed to taking an early position. In This House of Grief, she wrestles with the fact that despite all the expert evidence, ultimately only one person knows what happened that fateful night – Farquharson.
“He pointed out the lack of fit between Farquharson’s differing accounts of the events to different people, his calculated embroideries with their wonky hems and ragged edges.”
And then, in her own ‘knock-out-blow’, ponders the possibility that for Farquharson, loving his children and killing them were not necessarily mutually exclusive.
“…make his family see that loving him doesn’t mean they have to believe he’s innocent.”
Toward the end of this crushing story, Garner brings it back to the cold truth –
“The central fact of the matter would not let us rest. It tore at our hearts that inside the plunging car, while their father fled, three little boys had fought with their restraints, breathed filthy water, choked, thrashed and died.”
And I shut the book quickly, heart heavy, knowing that despite Garner’s neat words, nothing would change the fate of Jai,Tyler and Bailey.