Wednesday 23 March 2016

Book Review: This House of Grief by Helen Garner

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.

I read This House of Grief as part of both the Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the Eclectic Reader Challenge (which asked for an investigative journalism book). Even though I'm Australian, I've lived in London for many years so I was unfamiliar with the tragic story of Robert Farquharson and his three sons. After choosing to read This House of Grief, I purposefully didn't look up the case; I was able to read about the trial without any idea of whether Farquharson would be found guilty or innocent.

Helen Garner is such a fantastic writer. She was able to turn the somewhat boring legal proceedings into a compelling narrative. I was hooked from the first page and devoured this book in two days. I was desperate to find out what would happen to Robert Farquharson. It wasn't long in to the book that I decided for myself that he was certainly guilty. His strange behaviour immediately following the incident, and his inability to say exactly how he had helped to save his sons from drowning, made me question Farquharson's coughing blackout story. My instincts told me that something was just not right there. Surely a parent would be frantic, trying desperately to save their children's lives? Farquharson seemed to accept his boys' fate too willingly.

Reading about this horrific incident made my heart ache for the boys' mother Cindy Gambino. To lose all of your children in such a tragic way was heartbreaking. This House of Grief is a hard book to read, even though it is expertly written. Garner's thorough descriptions of the trial left me with visions of those three innocent souls fighting for their lives in that cold, dark water. It was torture to imagine such things and I don't even know the family personally. To understand the depths of their grief is impossible for me, but my compassion for them is boundless.

This House of Grief is investigative journalism at its absolute best. Garner's writing kept me enthralled throughout and I was able to relate to all of the emotions she so eloquently spoke about experiencing as she sat through week after week of Farquharson's murder trial. Garner is herself a compassionate observer while also being a competent journalist who is able to give us an uncensored report of every aspect of the trial. Garner has her own opinion of Robert Farquharson, but at all times she asks questions of herself and her reader, so as to look at this man from every possible angle. If he is as innocent as he claims, a misunderstood man, then he really is living every parent's worst nightmare.

After reading this book though, I don't believe in Farquharson's innocence. I think he made a terrible choice, out of spite and revenge, to take his children away from his ex-wife Cindy. I'm no expert, but if two separate juries found him guilty of intentionally driving that car into the dam and murdering his sons, then that's evidence enough for me. What Farquharson did is unforgivable. As heartbreaking as it was to read about this tragedy I'm grateful to know the story, so the lives of Jai, Tyler and Bailey can be honoured and remembered.  



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