May 2015

Rebecca Hussey


This House of Grief by Helen Garner

"I've never been on a jury," said my friend. "Have you?"

"No. Never been called. But I've heard stories and read books. And I've seen Twelve Angry Men about a hundred times."

This House of Grief, by Helen Garner, is an account of Garner's experience observing a murder trial, and, as this exchange attests, she wants it known she is no expert on the judicial system. Neither is she a newspaper reporter. Instead, she is a dilettante, an amateur, there merely to observe and write. In spite of her claims of dilettantism, though, the book is a masterful account of the trial of Robert Farquharson for the 2005 deaths of his three sons outside a small Australian town, southwest of Melbourne. With Farquharson at the wheel, the car carrying the three boys swung off the road and into a dam. Farquharson exited the car, scrambled up to the road, and asked two strangers to drive him to his ex-wife's house, leaving the boys behind. They all drowned. He claimed the accident occurred because of an attack of cough syncope, the loss of consciousness after a severe coughing attack. The prosecutor claimed it was an act of revenge against his wife, who had initiated their divorce and begun a new relationship.

After only a few pages of set-up, Garner plunges us into the workings of the trial, and we spend most of the book in the courthouse or in its immediate environs, hearing the evidence along with Garner and her companion, a sixteen-year-old girl named Louise on her gap year. We, along with Garner, learn about steering inputs and tire treads and the debate around the existence of cough syncope, either extremely rare or surprisingly common, depending on which expert one asks. We meet a large cast of characters, including Cindy Gambino, Farquharson's ex-wife, and her family. Much of the book's emotional drama comes from Farquharson's friend Greg King, who has damning evidence against Farquharson and struggles with the necessity of betraying his friend. Garner provides quick but telling portraits of the various witnesses and experts who take the stand. At the heart of the book, though, are those who are missing: the children. This is not a book for those who cannot bear to read about dark subjects, as the last moments of the Farquharson boys are horrifying. Garner's writing about the deaths and the emotional turmoil surrounding them is unsparing but also respectful.

The case turns out to be extremely tricky, in terms of the complexity of the evidence but also the emotions it evokes. This is one reason Garner stresses her amateur status: it leaves her freer to explore those emotional responses without the pressure of having to decide Farquharson's fate or to write up the story quickly for a newspaper deadline. She can consider from a safe distance the challenge the jurors face: How to make decisions based on facts and logic while also influenced by gut feelings, first impressions, biases, fatigue, boredom, and the inability to follow the ins and outs of extremely technical testimony. She wonders what it would be like to serve on the jury, and is left only with questions:

What if I were one of those tired, frightened jurors, sequestered by an oath from the comfort of work and family, browbeaten by oratory, craving the release of laughter or tears? Would I be dreading the moment when this tinnitus-like racket would have to be disentangled, unpicked, coaxed into a pattern of meaning, so that we could see what was really there, weigh it up, and arrive at a judgment on a fellow human being? [...] Calm down. I was not on the jury. I had made no vows. I was only an observer.

But, of course, Farquharson's fate depends on those tired, frightened jurors, and it is no wonder that Garner spends so much time watching them, trying to discover what is going through their minds and reading meaning into their every twitch and yawn.

Even as she is intensely relieved she does not have to decide Farquharson's innocence or guilt, she records her responses to the testimony about his character, working at the mystery of this man's existence. She feels pushed and pulled in different directions. At a particularly low moment for Farquharson, she admits, "To have my residual fantasies of his innocence dismantled, blow by blow, and out of his own mouth, filled me with an emotion I had no name for, though it felt weirdly like shame." The ability of others to be certain of their impressions and conclusions and to maintain self-protective boundaries against the turmoil taking place in the courthouse impresses and also puzzles her. She is shocked by the lawyer (unconnected with the Farquharson trial) who claimed in a radio interview that: "I am a lawyer conducting his case. Whether [the client] is guilty or not is none of my concern, and I've never conducted a case in which the result has been of any concern to me." In contrast to this untroubled detachment is the juror who puts the entire trial at risk by talking to Louise on the evening train ride home. For Garner, he is an understandable figure:

Starved as he was of human facts, restricted to the narrowest version of the evidence, his curiosity must have overwhelmed him. Like his fellow jurors, like us, he was striving to construct for each stranger an identity and a meaningful place in the mysterious web of the story.

Garner and (she presumes) the jurors long to fit all the facts into a coherent story with understandable characters, and she is sympathetic toward the intensity of feeling that would lead a juror to make such a serious blunder.

The book is a meditation on the familiar phrase "reasonable doubt" and on the nature of truth itself, but it never dwells on these issues for long. Instead, Garner keeps us immersed in the narrative, touching only lightly on her more philosophical questions before returning us to the courtroom. Her storytelling is compelling, and the transitions among her various subjects are seamless. She has a lot of material to organize -- descriptions of lawyers and witnesses, accounts of testimony, her own personal responses, her thoughts on the justice system -- but she moves among these topics with ease. That she spends relatively little time on larger philosophical questions doesn't lessen their effect; in fact, the opposite is true.

She is self-consciously working in the tradition of Janet Malcolm. One of the book's three epigraphs is from Malcolm's The Purloined Clinic, and she also quotes her "magisterial work," The Journalist and the Murderer: "Jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence but in actuality they are studying character." Garner covers some of the same territory as The Journalist and the Murderer -- the unreliability of memory, the role of emotional response and intuition in the justice system -- but Malcolm's book is much more directly about Malcolm herself and much more overtly philosophical. Garner works more implicitly, getting at ideas through her storytelling and hinting at rather than expounding upon them. She is more willing than Malcolm to let her story speak for itself.

We finish This House of Grief knowing a lot about Farquharson, his wife Cindy, their three sons, their friends, and their families, and we get a sense of where Garner lands on the question of Farquharson's guilt or innocence. The details of the story are fascinating, and Garner's crystal-clear writing serves the story well. But the chief impression we are left with is of the complexity of human nature and the impossibility of any justice system to fully account for it. Garner herself can ultimately only gesture toward that complexity, but she does so with remarkable skill and the resulting book is both troubling and deeply satisfying.

This House of Grief by Helen Garner
Text Publishing Company
ISBN: 978-1922079206
320 pages