This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner, Australia, 2014

This House of Grief is the story of a murder trial seen through the eyes of Helen Garner. In 2005, Robert Farquharson, drove his car, with his three young boys inside, across the road and into a dam just outside of Geelong in Victoria, Australia. Although Farquharson managed to get out the car, all three boys drowned, and the prosecution argued that the father had driven into the dam on purpose, in order to get even with a wife who had left him for another man. Farquharson maintained his innocence through two trials and claimed that he had had a fit of coughing and had blacked out. He was completely distraught that he was unable to save the boys.

The book, though well-written, is exceptionally depressing, and it soon becomes fairly clear that there is no chance that the word 'accident' will be considered in a case like this: someone has to pay for the loss of three innocent children. Whether Farquharson is guilty: whether it was no accident, and whether the prosecution actually got it right are all things that only Farquharson can know for certain.

The game, which is the court, is chilling in its theatrical displays and puzzling twists and turns of information where winning becomes far more important than finding the truth, and I feel that Garner handles all of this particularly well. She manages to build up a picture of an inadequate and/or flawed justice system where a guilty or not guilty verdict hangs on things as tenuous as the emotional mood of the jury or the proficiency of the lawyer (either prosecution or defence) in creating a reason for either of those two verdicts. 

Although I feel that Garner has done a remarkable job in presenting the inadequacies of a legal system where lawyers play to a disparate group of people – a group which may or may not have the intellectual, moral and/or emotional capacity to decide another person's innocence or guilt – there are a few places in the book where the author herself takes sides (albeit subtly), revealing that even she is not immune to the game being played.

I would not reread the book, and I do not feel that it is one of Garner's best books. This is partially because of the subject matter itself, but it is probably more because of a realization that no one - not even someone giving a neutral account of a trial - is exempt from the belief that 'someone has to pay'. 

Photo of Helen Garner

Watch a video with Jennifer Byrne interviewing Helen Garner