When Helen Garner, an award-winning Australian author, first saw the TV news images of the car being dragged out of the water, she uttered a prayer: ‘Oh Lord, let this be an accident.’ A strange, pessimistic, almost paranoid prayer. A car had swerved off a dark highway outside her hometown of Geelong, Australia, and plunged into a reservoir.Why wouldn’t that be an accident? But Garner seems to have had a premonition. This House of Grief is her account of the murder trial, and ultimate conviction, of the car’s driver, Robert Farquharson, who had escaped and swum ashore while his three young sons drowned.
One surprising absence from the book is any discussion of the wider phenomenon of what criminologists call ‘family annihilation’, in which men (almost always men, Medea notwithstanding) kill their own children out of hurt pride. But Farquharson’s may well have been a textbook case: the boys’ mother had recently left him for a man they’d hired to pour a concrete slab in their garden (a process, according to Garner, ‘so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect’).
Of the couple’s two cars, Farquharson had been left with what he indignantly called ‘the shit one’, and had to endure seeing ‘his wife and her lover flying around in the newish car’ — an ordeal that, Garner appreciates, ‘would be mortifying to many a man’. It was Father’s Day when the shit car went into the reservoir; and then there’s the matter of Farquharson’s bizarrely moronic behaviour at the water’s edge (asking for cigarettes while others dived down into the murk).
And yet there are doubts. Farquharson claimed to have blacked out at the wheel owing to a coughing fit, and there is reasonable evidence that he did suffer from a rare proneness to such episodes. The trial therefore hinged on reconstructions and analysis of the car’s physical path off the road, and what this would suggest as to whether the driver was conscious at the time.
The prosecution and defence naturally deployed complex and contradictory expert testimony on this point (to do with ‘steering inputs’ and marks in the bitumen), but Garner wasn’t looking to call her book ‘This House of Cars’. She doesn’t attempt to explain this testimony for the reader, admitting that her ‘mind lost its grip and slid away into reverie’ whenever the crucial subject came up. (She doesn’t seem to have had access to transcripts of the trial.)
The reader expects, then, a meditation on the general inscrutability of events and the impetuosity at the heart of the judicial system, emulating Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills and The Journalist and the Murderer (both explore cases of similar intrafamilial murder, resting mainly on circumstantial evidence). But Garner’s is not a reflective, essayistic approach; rather, the opposite — a diary of affective responses, mostly governed by her own rather mawkish ‘grief’ for the victims (‘Young boys! How can such wild, vital creatures die?’) and ultimate faith in gut intuition (‘My head was full of a very loud clanging. Nothing expert, nothing trained or intellectual. Just the alarm bells of a woman who had been in the world for more than 60 years’). Thus, with the self-absorption of the most ordinary juror, Garner gropes towards a verdict that feels right to her (it was with her all along, however much she abhorred ‘the way it violated…the vital link of loving duty between men and their children’: the hunch implicit in that opening prayer).
The book does not expand the public record of the case, or make any moral intervention of its own, so it cannot add to that (often meagre) dose of catharsis inherent — ever since Orestes found acquittal on the Acropolis — in the concept of the jury trial itself.