On Father’s Day in 2005, a car driven by Robert Farquharson, carrying his three young sons, veered off the highway outside of Winchelsea and plunged into a dam. Farquharson swam to shore, but his children drowned. In This House of Grief, Garner follows the subsequent murder trial, a case that stretched over eight years, and seeks to answer the incomprehensible: was Farquharson’s a deliberate act? Winner of a 2015 Windham Campbell Prize for Nonfiction.
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.