This House of Grief is the highly anticipated new release by Helen Garner (aka my homegirl, she who I have written about numerously in the past). Of course, I pre-ordered it so that I could my hands on it as soon as possible (ah, the life of a book nerd). So, not only was it a first edition novel that was signed (signed!) by Ms Garner herself, but I also got to see her discuss her book at the Melbourne Writers Festival (where I was a volunteer. Refer to book nerd comment above).

This House of Grief follows the case and subsequent trials of Robert Farquharson, a name that resonates with most Australians, but is probably unfamiliar to those of you overseas. In 2005 on Father’s Day, Farquharson drove his three sons into a dam and they all drowned. He survived and claims that he blacked out from a coughing fit. Many believe that he did it as a form of revenge against his ex-wife.

This isn’t a case that ‘divided a nation’, but it was one that was so notorious that many refused to discuss it, or simply swept it away, as though it were too awful to contemplate. The idea of children suffering a very premature death is terrible enough, but the idea that it was through the revengeful acts of their father? Needless to say, after he was convicted, few felt sorry for the man.

This is the trial that Helen Garner covers in her latest book, This House of Grief. In an unbiased, thoughtful tone, she describes the scene as it occurred, the subsequent trials and re-trials that followed, and the emotions that not only she felt through the entire process, but the emotions that others felt around her; journalists, friends, even those who she barely knew.

Helen Garner is considered one of the most iconic writers in Australia. And she knows it. She came into my work late last year, and I asked her what she was working on; she responded with this book, but ruefully admitted that another writer had just released a book on the same topic. I responded that, what did it matter, hers would be better, as she was Helen Garner!

Her response? ‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’

Yet although she is such a prolific writer, opinions are very divided about her: you either think she is the greatest Australian author living, or you think she deserves to keep her thoughts and opinions to herself. While I was reading This House of Grief, I couldn’t help but think, multiple times, that ‘un-Garner fans’ would not be happy.

In a way that is similar to a narrator starring in her own documentary, Garner has a way of inserting herself into the story (whether fiction or non-fiction), so that you see things from her perspective. Yet at the same time, she tries to stay unbiased – rather, she presents all the facts on the table, and sees things from a compassionate point of view, without anger. While this is usually highly applauded in narrators, I can see why so many people would be infuriated that she talks about the empathy and pity that she feels for this man…a man who has been sentenced to life for killing his three sons.

I love Helen Garner’s writing because it’s human and it’s painfully truthful – we all have thoughts, beliefs and emotions that sometimes we’re not proud of. It may be flashes of anger at a loved one (when they really don’t deserve it), it might be doubt when everyone else believes, or it may even be a stomach-twinge as you watch a man cry over the death of his children, even if he is responsible for his death.

More than that those, Helen Garner’s writing is so beautifully written: each line, each detail added paints an extra emotion into the landscape of her novel, all without coming across as trite, overly emotional or even as an obvious literary device. There’s a scene in This House of Grief, where she describes the boys’ grave, and she adds that it includes a golden Bob the Builder. Is this anything else, so subtle, so heart-wrenching, that could describe how wrong it was that these boys died?

This House of Grief is well-written, succinct, beautifully told and, as always, unerringly honest. It isn’t as nuanced as her other non-fiction books (particularly Joe Cinque’s Consolation), but is still an absorbing read that I knocked back in less than three days (when really, I should have been studying). For Australians, I think it is a book that will resonate with a lot of us, and for those who are overseas, if you’re able to get your hands on a Helen Garner book, then I’d really recommend reading it!

 

Have you read anything by Helen Garner? Do you remember the Robert Farquharson case? Are we allowed to admit feeling empathy towards a criminal? Let me know!

this house of grief by helen garner

This House of Grief – (image taken from http://www.cloudfront.net)

 

 

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