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This House of Grief – The Story of a Murder Trial

By Helen Garner The Text Publishing Company, 2014 When Australian author Helen Garner checked her junk mail at the beginning of March, she saw a note that she had won a prize. She had never heard of it. This was the Yale-based Windham-Campbell Prize, and was worth $150,000 US dollars. Garner, one of Australia’s best known novelists and essayists, received the prize along with other English-language luminaries such as British novelist Tessa Hadley, as well as Jerry Pinto from India, and Americans Branden Jacob-Jenkins, C.E. Morgan, Hilton Als, and Stanley Crouch, playwright, novelist, writer/editor, and poet/literary critic respectively.  The Windham-Campbell prize is unusual in that there is no submissions process. Winners are selected by the judges from works in English, published recently. When she realized the prize was not a hoax, Garner was of course relieved and jubilant. She had after all, spent at least a full year at the trial and retrial of Robert Farquharson before writing her riveting account of the trial and the personalities involved. Farquharson, a divorced father of three young sons, living in the quiet country town of Winchelsea, Victoria, had his boys for Father’s Day, 2005, (Father’s Day is in September in Australia) and was driving them home when his car went into a dam. Farquharson escaped the sinking car, but the three boys, aged eleven, seven, and two, drowned. Their father said he had been overcome by a coughing fit and blacked out. He was charged with murder. Helen Garner unpacks the arguments of the prosecution and the defense in light of the gradually emerging personalities of Farquharson, his ex-wife Cindy Gambino and the witnesses for each side, and through the lens of her own rich experience ( Garner is a grandmother, several times divorced) and her compassion. It is the compassion for all the parties involved that drives this book. I won’t be a spoiler and say whether Farquharson was found guilty or not. The writer powerfully leads the reader on, page after page.  At the same time, she brings her own sensibility to the story, wondering, as she goes home after a draining day at the trial about her own young grandsons. She wants to hug them, trying to imagine “How can such wild, vital creatures die? How can this hilarious sweetness be snuffed out forever?” Two chapters later, she relates how “rage blinded” her when the children would not obey her. Garner is known for the emotional honesty of her writing, and this book demonstrates this over and over again. But this is not just outstanding journalism. Garner brings to her descriptions of place a lyrical quality. Like Garner, I, too, am a native of Victoria, that southern state of Australia which belies the image of a “sunburnt country.” It is very often cold and windswept in this area near the Otway Ranges, which fall sharply to the sea. Garner conjures up the feeling of hopelessness that must have befallen Robert Farquharson as he sat with his sons in the car, listening to the football, that long ago Sunday afternoon. She remembers, and it brought it all back to me, too, “winter Sunday afternoons in that part of the country, their heavy melancholy…. The air is still and chilly. The steel-cloud-cover will never break. Time stalls. There is no future. One’s own desolation is manifest in the worn-down volcanic landscape. The life-force burns low in its secret cage.”  Surprising imagery, like a spear-point in its accuracy.  Garner never spares herself in her dedication to this dreadful story and its penetrating grief. At the end of the book she almost apologizes to the boys’ parents, acknowledging that the grief she felt in hearing their story cannot be compared to theirs. “But no other word will do,” she says. “Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken.” This book richly deserves its prize. Very highly recommended.

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