Helen Garner, This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial (Text 2014)
This is the third of Helen Garner’s courtroom books, and it’s a much tougher read than I remember the others being. Maybe that’s because this one involves a man who drove into a dam in a car that also contained his three young sons, and swam free himself. In four court hearings he is committed and tried for murder, appeals successfully against the guilty verdict, and is tried again. The aim of the legal process is to determine his guilt or otherwise. The book would be as relentlessly painful no matter what the jury finally decided.
The book is beautifully written. It’s subtle, sharp and unremitting. It conveys brilliantly the theatre of the court. It’s brave too: Helen Garner doesn’t back off from offering her own readings, her own judgments, of the many courtroom participants – witnesses, lawyers, judges, journalists, family members of the accused and of the dead children, her own young companion Louise, a bumptious school student drop-in, and at the centre of it all the man himself. I found it gruelling, and ultimately very satisfying, even while it pins a huge question mark on the tail of the whole legal system: so much raking through people’s lives and relationships, so many people put through the horrendous ordeal of cross-examination (much worse here, it seems, than in standard TV fare) – surely there must be a better way than this single-minded quest to find where to apportion blame?
It’s probably central to Garner’s power as narrator and her persuasiveness as interpreter that she dramatises her own emotional responses, so that we’re always aware that this is one person’s perspective and that it’s a perspective with flesh on its bones. She constantly reminds us that the court is dealing with profoundly human events – in this case the violent death of three children. I love the following, for example:
Was there a form of madness called court fatigue? It would have mortified me to tell Louise about the crazy magical thinking that filled my waking mind and, at night, my dreams: if only Farquharson could be found not guilty, then the boys would not be dead. Cindy would drive home from the court and find them playing kick-to-kick in the yard, or sprawled in their socks on the couch, absorbed in the cartoon channel. Bailey would run to her with his arms out. They would call for something to eat. She would open the fridge and cheerfully start rattling the pots and pans. I could not wait to get home, to haul my grandsons away from their Lego and their light sabres, to squeeze them in my arms until they squirmed. Young boys! How can such wild, vital creatures die?How can this hilarious sweetness be snuffed out forever?
Moving on to my obligatory November rhyming:
Sonnet No 5: Magical thinking?
What magic could bestow on juries
the power to undo a crime?
Guilt still would be pursued by Furies,
innocence shine forth in time,
but history, by twelve’s decision,
would undergo benign revision –
the dead would live, the maimed be whole,
and peace suffuse the tortured soul.
Real courts, alas, aren’t made for healing.
Wounds heal elsewhere, if at all.
What magic thinking has us call
to public scrutiny dark feeling –
grief, hate, regret, long festered strife?
No verdict can restore a life.
This House of Grief is the eighth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Added 18 June 2015: Helen Garner appeared at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival. Her riveting talk about her inspirations for This House of Grief was recorded and is available as a podcast.