October 13

This House of Grief by Helen Garner

In September this year, an apparently loving father from Lockhardt, NSW shot his wife and three children before killing himself. This incomprehensible tragedy sent shockwaves across the country and left us all scratching for an explanation. By pure co-incidence, Helen Garner’s second non-fiction book based on a case involving a father facing murder charges for drowning his three sons in 2005 hit the shelves. Call me sad but I just couldn’t help but want to know more.

Just like her most recent non-fiction novel (Joe Cinque’s Consolation) Garner has in impressive track record of presenting facts with the flair of a fiction writer. In this book she had me hooked from the outset with the harrowing details of the 2008 trial of Robert Farquharson from the small country town of Winchelsa, Victoria. After his wife pulled the pin on their marriage, Robert moved in with his widowed father and did his best to get on with his life. Although grieving, no one could have foreseen what he did on Father’s Day 2005 when he drove his car into a freezing dam with his three sons (aged 2, 7 and 10) in the back. He escaped the sinking car unscathed and left the three boys to drown.

For this book, Garner sat through seven weeks of evidence in the Supreme Court of Victoria which included painful testimonials, boring technicalities and grizzly, drawn out reconstructions of the scene. All she wanted was an explanation. She was as conscientious as anyone present in terms of the facts presented but also managed to weave in her own doubts and observations on the evidence presented. While the barristers were interrogating witnesses in the box, she was watching for the the way they held their heads during the breaks. Her descriptions of the daily rhythms and tensions of the room are so humble and uncomplicated and set a reflective backdrop to the protocols and technicalities of the judicial process.

When I first picked up this book, I assumed the title “This House of Grief” was referring to the Farquharson family home but when I read back through the dedication, I realised it was a reference to the courthouse itself and you can see why. This is painstakingly constructed and very sad story with no happy ending. As a conscientious observer of human nature, I enjoyed the re-telling of this case through Garner’s eyes where technical details are secondary and human frailties and motives tell all. I only wish she had been able to unearth an explanation.