Again, Garner shows us her facility for recording speech and, even more remarkably, the 'waves of emotion and private mental activity' of group listening, now honed to almost hallucinogenic clarity ... Here, too, are Garner’s characteristic sympathies: with working people, immigrants, mothers ... And here, in every scene, is Garner herself, thirsty for coffee, wisecracking, observant: her very own USP ... This is a communal, painful effort: the lawyers and jury are engaged in the difficult understanding that a man murdered his children, and so is Garner ... This careful record of the mind and its workings, of the strange dance we take toward truth, makes the narrative compelling and the story fresh through all the trials and retrials. It also insists that Farquharson and his children belong to all of us ... It’s an elegiac farewell, and indeed the whole book feels final, elegiac – perhaps because for all the horror, it is so elegantly and calmly written; perhaps because This House of Grief completes so many arcs begun in Garner’s previous works; perhaps because it is impossible to imagine it being done better.
Helen Garner’s This House of Grief....is as involving, heart-rending and unsettling a read as you could possibly find, a true-life account of three deaths and a trial that leaves you with a profound sense of unease as its drama unfolds, and disturbing questions about how we judge guilt and innocence ... Garner is an immensely sympathetic narrator, open, honest, swayed first one way and then the other by the competing claims of the barristers ... She is our unsteady moral compass in this storm of provisional truths, testing the opinions of onlookers, trying to be rational, watching the tears stream down the faces of accusers and accused alike ... Garner writes simply about the proceedings, but with immense control and many taut, haunting asides. Under her scrutiny, the plain, unglamorous cast in the courtroom begins to take on the heft of Homeric figures ... Some may come away from This House of Grief...unsatisfied by a book that ends, almost too abruptly, as soon as the final verdict is handed down. But the deep unease with which one is left, and the feelings of guilt and shame one shares with Garner about taking pleasure from such private grief, are the real legacies of this remarkable book.
Central to the story is Rob Farquharson, loving father of Jai, Tyler and Bailey and their possible murderer. Yet somehow, despite Garner’s incisive eye and crisp prose, he remains elusive. The problem lies not in Farquharson’s portrait being too vague, but in that it is just too ordinary ... The difficulty resides in our inability to reconcile the Crown prosecutor’s depiction of him as angry, humiliated and vengeful, with Garner’s own observations of him, slouched and shackled in the docks ... As with Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Garner’s previous non-fiction book, the immeasurable grief of a parent from the loss of a child is brought into sharp relief ... Garner is in her element as evidence is dismissed and facts are turned on their head. She weaves descriptions of the legal proceedings with scenes from that fateful night, witness accounts and testimonies, to create a rich canvas of heartbreaking drama ... This House of Grief has all the trademark Helen Garner touches: harrowing scenes recorded without restraint or censorship; touching observations of characters’ weaknesses; wry moments of humour. And also customary with Garner’s work, her words, and the boys’ fate, will haunt us long after we’ve turned the last page.
As a writer of nonfiction, Garner is scrupulous, painstaking, and detailed, with sharp eyes and ears. She is everywhere at once, watching and listening, a recording angel at life’s secular apocalypses .... Garner is, above all, a savage self-scrutineer: her honesty has less to do with what she sees in the world than with what she refuses to turn away from in herself ... This House of Grief makes its complexity out of an honest vulnerability ... Garner’s book is superbly alive to the narrative dynamics of the case ... Attracted and repelled, Garner circles around the unspeakable, abysmal horror. Can any story 'explain' why a man might murder his children? She doesn’t pretend to possess the explosive answer, and frequently confesses appalled stupefaction, but her book walks us along an engrossing and plausible narrative fuse ... Her narrative is lit by lightning. Hideous, jagged details leap out at us ... Garner is a powerful and vivid presence in her nonfiction narratives: she intervenes; she weeps and laughs with the evidence; she is scornful, funny, impassioned, and gives honest expression to biases and prejudices ... She powerfully sympathizes with Farquharson’s thwarted opportunities and flattened will, but she cannot hide her distaste for his weakness, which she expresses in tellingly gendered jabs ...
While the acclaimed Melbourne novelist and true crime writer does not uncover anything new in this sad tale of loss and destruction in one small family, she manages to enlighten the reader on almost every page ... While other journalists picked sides, Garner battled with the reality of a father taking the lives of his three sons and the effects of divorce on couples ... Garner’s gift for understanding the harsh realities of human nature is troubled by this case, and as a reader it will hopefully make one grateful they were not placed in anyone involved in this grim story’s lives. How Garner makes this a page-turner is through her own anguished tone. Her own inner rhythm. It is a must-read.
...devastating, utterly compelling ... This tragic case is astutely observed by the most wise and expressive of writers ... The book also provides a fascinating insight into the legal process. Garner describes the awe and the adrenalin she felt when she entered the Supreme Court of Victoria, 'this house of grief', and she sets the stage for the theatre that is a court case – wigs tilted forward, wigs tilted back, the tiny diamond stud in the lobe of the judge’s left ear. Her writing is almost painterly in these sections. The actors – the families of Cindy Gambino and Robert Farquharson, the journalists, the lawyers, the witnesses – all play a role like a Greek chorus, summing up at stages, raising questions that people outside the story are asking too. Helen Garner observes who looks at whom in the court and what their expressions tell us, and she is a master interpreter of body language, of gesture, of looks and of sighs.
Like The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation before it, This House of Grief proceeds from Garner’s first instinctive response. All three books are grounded in the idea that to feel something is a kind of fact. All wonder about the meaning and the status of that subjective fact. In this sense, they might be read as essays that question the concept of rationality ... This is the source of Garner’s somewhat ambiguous and occasionally problematic relationship with the tabloidish quality of her subjects. She co-opts the emotional pull, the primal fascination, but attempts to redirect our attention. Tabloids appeal to and reinforce their readers’ prejudices in order to impose a spurious certainty; Garner, who is the antithesis of a hack, is interested in the prejudicial reaction itself, rather than the conclusion it seeks to impose ... It is part of Garner’s intention...as she closely follows the progress of Farquharson’s trial and retrial, to respect that pure human anguish, to write about it in a language that acknowledges its profound and ineffable core ... she is a brilliant critic: a shrewd observer of people, alert to subtext, always aware that she is witnessing a fragment of a larger human drama that is being attenuated by the formality of proceedings ... she has perfected a kind of negative capability in which she acts a focal point for the book’s themes, which are channelled through her reactions but resonate far beyond them ... The opposition and the religious overtones are explicit; the implication that the battle between the emotions and the intellect is unwinnable. But Garner also implies that it is only by respecting both sides of the argument that it might become possible to understand the deaths of those three small children, for that understanding cannot be found in the facts alone; it also resides somewhere in the book’s deep and abiding sadness.
It’s difficult to loudly sing the praises of a book that covers such a harrowing subject ... It would be misleading to say this is an enjoyable read, but it ripples with the strength of Garner’s prose ... It takes time to feel Garner’s point of view. She positions herself as a divorced woman, and this tenders her narration with an interesting perspective as it suggests she might feel sympathy, even just a thread, for the embittered ex-husband. Do we, as readers, feel a flicker of this too? ... We are jolted from the semantics of witnesses endlessly going over tyre treads in the grass, or misplaced yellow paint marks made by the Major Collision unit on the bitumen where the car was thought to have left the road, to something that feels closer to a truth, however elusive. This is a gut-wrenching, tense study of a murder trial, brilliant in its precision and perception.
Garner's real focus is not on the verdict but on the inner world of a doomed family. If you liked Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, this is an Australian version, with a full cast of indebted, overweight chain-smoking characters from the wrong side of the tracks. Garner shines a torch into the lives of the kind of Australians we rarely read about or see on film.
...emotionally overwrought and dramatic ... Garner is there for every step, coloring the proceedings with her own opinions and experiences. But it’s never entirely clear why Garner is so obsessed with this case, and why she feels the need to filter the information through her perceptions ... Though the information is solid, and Garner provides a strong picture of the trial and murder case, the impact is lessened by her own internal musings.