By Christine Croyden
The adage that one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story is once again turned on its head by Helen Garner in her new book The House of Grief, where she painstakingly gets to the truth and in doing so creates a very good story.
In discussion with Ramona Koval for the opening event of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, Garner described the process in detail. Her book tells the story of Robert Farquharson, who murdered his three young sons by driving the family car into a dam near Winchelsea in 2007. A horrific crime allegedly committed to punish his wife for leaving him and finding another man.
Garner’s fascination with the story began the moment she saw the first televised images of the crime scene. Like most people her reaction was one of sheer disbelief. However, unlike most people, she didn’t immediately assume the man was guilty rather she decided that she wanted to find out for herself exactly what happened. So began a period of research, thinking, questioning and attendance at the lengthy trial and three appeals at the Supreme Court. A place Garner came to love so much that she has dedicated this new book to the institution.
In her signature candid way she described the negative reaction she received from some people for taking on the Farquharson story. Garner feels this is probably because she’s perceived as being ‘soft on men’. A reputation she may have acquired after her book The First Stone, where she was forgiving of a Master at Ormond College, who allegedly made sexual advances towards a young student under his care on the dance floor at Melbourne University in the early 90’s. Or, perhaps it was much earlier in the 70’s when Nora, the young protagonist in her first novel Monkey Grip, puts up with so much rubbish from her heroin addicted boyfriend Jago.
For whatever reason it doesn’t seem an accurate assessment. Garner’s motivating forces are clearly insatiable curiosity about life and people and a deeply felt humanist philosophy. And, just as her writing is direct and self assured with startling clarity so is everything she has to say, and when Koval suggests that some of her observations in the new book are ‘novelistic’ (as in they could be fiction) Garner responds by saying she’d put money on her instincts. Koval quickly backs down and says she’d put money on Helen’s instincts too, and I’d bet so would most people. This brief exchange points to the essence of Garner’s success as a writer. Her observations are always acute and her moral compass is very finely tuned.
It took time for her to become convinced that Robert Farquharson was guilty of murdering his three young sons and she said there was not one crystallising moment during the trial when she completely understood that he was guilty. However, over a period of years filled with intensely watching and listening to everything that went on in that courtroom, including the most boring technical details about car tyre marks and the speed of wheels; evidence, throughout which, many of the jury members snored loudly. Helen Garner, detail magnet, stayed wide-awake and fascinated as she gradually became convinced that this man had committed this most unconscionable crime. A crime that has now become a gripping and disturbing story for our times.