Book Review: “This House of Grief” by Helen Garner (#AWW2016)



When Helen Garner announced she was going to write about the trial of Robert Farquharson, whose car, for reasons known only to himself, plunged into a dam on Father’s Day 2005 and drowned his three young boys – people looked at her in silence. Why would she want to cover such a despicable case? It would be just another trial. Besides, people already formed their own opinions regarding Farquharson’s guilt or lack of it in causing the death of his sons.

But the truth is, what we know of a public event – a natural or manmade tragedy – is often a filtered and/or diluted version of what the media choose to perceive and reveal. It is never the full picture, which, in fact, is rather impossible to establish and express. Still, such a limited representation is all we have to inform our views about the event per se. Worse, despite all our good intentions, we often have to focus on bits and pieces of selected details of an event in order to comprehend and categorise it. In this process, forfeited and even forgotten are the stories of those real people involved in all aspects of it.

Indeed, it is human nature to explore not only HOW things work, but also WHY they work, both within and outside of us. The human mind itself is a universe that is worthy of investigation – a maze with many twists and turns, dark corners overgrown with poisonous weeds. Facing them, it takes extraordinary courage to confess our fear and vulnerability.

In the case of Farquharson’s trial, when it came down to writers, instead of journalists, to investigate and report in detail, Garner volunteered – and suffered as a consequence. This House of Grief is not only a faithful documentation of the trial, but also an exploration of traumatised human minds and emotions, including her own. Her writing is calm, sensitive and delicate, so beautiful that you want to read it out loud, yet so fierce and truthful that it hurts to grasp it. She gives a voice to each of the individuals involved – from the barristers and many expert witnesses on both sides to Farquharson and his ex-wife and their perspective families, and then to the media representatives and members of the public as spectators of the trial. She makes them real, a reality we cannot imagine while watching a three-minute summary of the trial on TV.

And it makes you want to weep, reading this book, because Garner cuts so deep into humanity that it bleeds from our soul. It is almost like reading The Lord of the Flies, except all the characters are adults, and they are real human beings like any one of us. You are not asked to make a judgement on what is right or wrong – oh, no, that will be too easy on you as a reader. Instead, you are led to the edge of an unforgiving abyss. Whether or not to descend is your choice. But it helps to know the light looks brightest in the depth of darkness.


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