On the evening of 4 September 2005, Father’s Day, Robert Farquharson, a separated husband, was driving his three sons home to their mother, Cindy, when his car left the road and plunged into a dam. The boys, aged ten, seven and two, drowned. Was this an act of revenge or a tragic accident? The court case became Helen Garner’s obsession. She followed it on its protracted course until the final verdict. In this utterly compelling book, Helen Garner tells the story of a man and his broken life. She presents the theatre of the courtroom with its actors and audience, all gathered for the purpose of bearing witness to the truth, players in the extraordinary and unpredictable drama of the quest for justice.The heartbreaking case Helen Garner explores in This House of Grief is one I’d really only known the barest details on. I vaguely remember the initial news reports, but living in Queensland I’m sure something closer to home soon took up the headlines. While we studied part of the media coverage at university, various legal appeals were ongoing and there seemed to my memory no definitive outcome. Was this a tragic accident or the most horrific and unthinkable murder?
This was my first experience reading Garner and within the first pages I understood why she is considered one of Australia’s finest writers. Her style is sparse, yet holds a rare beauty and conveys powerful emotions. It’s easy to see the skill involved in paring down the multitudes of research involved in this book, which reads seamlessly despite spanning years of legal drama.
Even those who feel they know this case well will find something new in This House of Grief. Having reported from court myself I was in awe of Garner’s ability to build such a vivid picture of the family’s life before the accident, and indeed in its aftermath, based on the evidence given in both trials. Admittedly, Garner’s subjectivity shook me slightly at first. As a journalist, I’ve been taught to tell a compelling story from court with as much objectivity as possible. But that personal insight is also what makes this book so intriguing.
As author Julian Barnes so beautifully puts it, Garner doesn’t just examine what happened, but “what we prefer to believe and what we cannot face believing”. The thought that a father could kill his innocent children is something no one wants to believe is possible. Yet Farquharson’s explanation leaves a lot to be desired. Reading this, the audience is also witness to Garner’s own conflicting thoughts on his guilt, seemingly shifting throughout. Again, it’s a case where no one wants to believe a father could be capable of such a cruel and inhumane act.
This book left me with little doubt of Garner’s status as an Australian literary icon, but true crime fans shouldn’t be intimidated. This House of Grief is as compelling as they come, but with a melancholy beauty few writers could pull off. Garner asks tough questions of herself and, in turn, the reader. Crucially, the three boys, Jai, Tyler, and Bailey, are never forgotten in the unravelling of this horrific crime and subsequent legal drama, nor is the deep loss suffered by their family.