A review of this Helen Garner’s ‘This House of Grief’
This House of Grief, Helen Garner, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2014, $22.95
Creative non-fiction is a genre that has incredible power. Indeed, Helen Garner’s This House of Grief has a lasting emotional impact; “Every stranger’s heart is broken” (Garner 2014, pg. 300). Lee Kofman (2012) says creative nonfiction is one of the fastest growing literary genres in Australia. Immense ‘thank yous’ are deserved of Garner, who Lee Gutkind (2012) describes as a veteran of the genre, for this growth. Kofman (2012) says Garner writes investigative journalism with a “novelist’s attention to language, character and setting and with a memoirist’s candid and urgent authorial presence”. It’s a skill that is poignantly evident in This House of Grief; it is not only the story but the writing that is gripping.
This House of Grief tells the story of the trial of a seemingly ordinary man charged with the murder of his three young sons. He is accused of driving his children into a damn, before escaping, surviving and hailing down a car on the highway begging them to drive him to his ex-wife’s so he can tell her he has killed their kids. The story spans a period of seven years, following the committal, trial, re-trial and sentencing. Garner’s masterful storytelling, as Ramona Koval (2014) describes, paints the portrait of an “ordinary man and an unthinkable crime”. It’s a portrait that is devastating, but utterly compelling.
It is no surprise This House of Grief is such a resounding success. Garner has a reputation for her “acute observations” and “harrowing scenes” (Koval, 2014) established in her preceding body of work including The First Stone (1995) and Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004).
This House of Grief (2014) begins like a fairytale – “once there was a hardworking bloke” (Garner 2014, p.1). It’s a technique that may originally appear cliched, but this is a modern fairytale. It’s a portrait of an ordinary man, “cleaner’s wage” (Garner 2014, p.1), but a story that takes a dramatic dark turn, “the car sank to the bottom, and all the children drowned” (Garner 2014, p.1). Garner’s opening of the novel reflects the Farquharson story’s position in Australian society. The three kids who were driven into a dam and left to drown by their father are known in households throughout the country, particularly Victoria. Garner’s fairytale style opening represents the difficulty for the Australian people to accept such a horrid story as truth. This is something Garner grapples with throughout the text and the insightful conclusions she reaches are admirable.
At that moment I would have given anything to be convinced that he was innocent- and not because ‘I believed him’, whatever that meant, but because, in spite of everything I had heard and observed and thought in court, in spite of everything I knew about the ways of the world, it was completely unendurable to me that a man would murder his own children.
(Garner 2014, p. 263).
Here it becomes clear that not only is Garner’s storytelling multi-layered – her experience writing the book is a story in itself – she provides a valuable contribution by reflecting on the sentiment of Australian society. Koval (2014) acknowledges Garner’s reluctance to impose her viewpoint on the reader. “Garner desperately fights to hold her disbelief in Farquharson’s testimony at bay” (Koval, 2014). The novel is a journey of a search for truth in the trial, but also a search to tell the truth in the most accurate and objective way possible. However Robin Hemley (2012), a critic of creative non-fiction, is skeptical of the genre’s ability to tell the truth. “Every book that purports to be truthful is distorting something. Every time you put something down on paper or on the computer there is always distortion” (Hemley, 2012).
Writers of book length journalism are endowed with a responsibility to tell truth, one that Garner has a reputation of taking seriously. For Garner, it’s a constant battle with the ethical dilemmas inherent in the genre. But her insertion of the self into this novel, “I saw it on the TV news” (Garner 2014, p.2), is successful in tackling them head on. There’s a transparency in her writing. The insertion of the first person ‘I’ reminds the reader it’s a version of the truth being seen through Garner’s eyes, not an objective fact. Not only is the use of ‘I’ ethical, it is intimate, “oh Lord, let this be an accident” (Garner 2014, pg.2). The reader is left with a fondness for Garner as a character in the novel – “my head was full of a very loud clanging… nothing trained or intellectual. Just a shit-detector going off, that was all” (2014, p.69).
It is this intense characterisation, even of Garner herself – she can relate to the “pain and humiliation of divorce” (2014, p.3) – which throws the reader into the deep emotional turmoil of the story. Each figure in the court trial becomes a character as they are introduced by detailed and telling descriptions. Sergeant Geoffrey Exton “was a tough looking fellow in his late fifties with a thick moustache and a cannon ball of a skull that bristled with short grey hair” (Garner 2014, p.20). The reader comes to know each character intimately, “how small she was… her skin was the pale greyish- brown of a walnut shell, as if grief had soaked her to the bone” (Garner 2014, p.28). However some critics, including Ramona Koval question the character development of the man central to the story. “Farquharson’s character remains elusive despite Garner’s insightful eye” (Koval, 2014). But Koval’s conclusions are accurate; she says the problem is not that Garner is too vague, but that Farqharson is too ordinary (2014). Furthermore, Garner has been criticised for her portrayal of Farquharson as sympathetic, “… he looked scared, small, and terribly lonely” (Garner 2014, p.7). Rather it is a fair, unbiased representation and allows readers to form their own judgement on his character. As Catherine Mah says “…she is a master interpreter of body language, of gesture, of looks and of sighs” (2014).
Katherine England from the Adelaide Advertiser (2008) says Garner’s great qualities are the clarity of her perceptions and the loving precision with which she conveys them “She glories in the ordinary and makes it glow” (England, 2008). Garner’s ability to convey deep meaning in acute descriptions is admirable, “we were familiar with it’s melancholy beauty” (2014, p.3). Insightful observations bring the reader into the scene, “Farquharson lurched forward in the dock and covered his whole face with his handkerchief” (Garner 2014, p.14), they tag along on Garner’s emotional roller-coaster journey through the case. Catherine Mah (2014) says “harrowing scenes recorded without restraint or censorship; touching observations of characters’ weaknesses; wry moments of humour” are Garner’s trademark touches.
Garner doesn’t force her ideas and judgement of the case upon the reader but instead provides food for thought, and there is ample of it – “but what is a man supposed to look like when all his children are dead?” (2014, p.288). It’s this aim for objectivity and emphasis on ethical concerns that has made a great contribution to the development of creative non-fiction in Australia, inspiring newcomers like Chloe Hooper (The Tall Man) and Anna Funder (Stasiland).
Garner embodies a form of bravery in taking on this story, it was subject to intense public scrutiny and she was under criticism for looking into it at the time, “when I said I wanted to write about the trial, people looked at me in silence, with an expression I could not read” (2014, p.6). But the novel makes a great contribution to Australian society in a way similar to the role of journalism. After all, it is a quintessentially Australian, if not Victorian story, “… on the Princes Highway, the road that encircles the continent” (Garner 2014, p.2). Garner has asserted the Farquharson trial’s position in Australian history as reflected in the novel’s final words:
“The children’s fate is our legitimate concern. They are ours to mourn. They belong to all of us now” (Garner 2014, p.300).
Garner, Helen, This House of Grief, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2014
Gutkind, Lee, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction-from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Da Capo Press (2012).
Hemley, Robin. “Robin Hemley On Creative Non-Fiction”. Radio National. N.p., 2012. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
Kofman, Lee, ‘Required Reading’ Creative NonFiction issue 46, Fall 2012.
Koval, Ramona. “‘This House Of Grief’ By Helen Garner”. The Monthly. N.p., 2014. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Mah, Catherine. “This House Of Grief By Helen Garner Review – Haunting True Account Of An Accused Murderer”. the Guardian. N.p., 2014. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Ricketson, Matthew, ’Not muddying, clarifying: towards understanding the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction’, TEXT journal Vol 14, no. 2