“…a terrible gong of horror.” – This House of Grief by Helen Garner

May 19, 2015 at 10:30 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

thishouseofgrief_2  This is the story of the death by drowning of three young boys – brothers – in Australia, and of the trial, or I should say trials, that came afterward.

It was a spring day. We passed Geelong and were soon flying along between paddocks yellow with capeweed, their fence lines marked by the occasional windbreak of dark cypresses. Across the huge sky sailed flat-bottomed clouds of brilliant white. My companion and I had spent years of our childhoods in this region. We were familiar with its melancholy beauty, the grand, smooth sweeps of its terrain. Rolling west along the two-lane highway, we opened the windows and let the air stream through.

(Helen Garner’s companion on this grim journey is a teenager named Louise, looking for a useful way to employ her time during her “gap year.”)

At the end of the gruelling day the jury looked older, weary and sad. The men’s brows were furrowed, the women were stowing sodden handkerchiefs. Out in the courtyard we passed Bev Gambino. She gave us a small, shaky smile. Her face was thin, her eyes hollow behind the pretty spectacles. A puff of wind would have carried her away. Louise and I were beyond speech. We parted in Lonsdale Street. On the long escalator down to Flagstaff station I could not block out of my mind those small bodies, the tender reverse-midwifery of the diver. The only way I could bear it was to picture the boys as water creatures: three silvery, naked little sprites, muscular as fish, who slithered through a crack in the car’s rear window and, with a flip of their sinuous feet, sped away together into their new element.

The stunning image summoned forth here will, I think, stick with me for the rest of my life. What a mind  Helen Garner possesses! What an amazingly gifted writer. And I had never before heard of her.

Garner says that when she first saw the image of the submerged car in which the Farquharson boys had been trapped,  ‘‘I suppose it struck me in the way it struck everyone who saw it, with a terrible gong of horror.’’ This House of Grief in part depicts Garner’s personal struggle to make some kind of sense out of  this tragedy. In her attitude toward the chief players in the drama – the father who stands accused, the ravaged mother, and others –  she is alternately tough minded and tender. She feels the horrible loss almost as if it were her own. It is indeed very deep water, and the reader must perforce go with her on this harrowing journey.

Obviously this book is not for everyone. In fact, those to whom I’ve described its matter tend to recoil in dismay, exclaiming all the while: “How could you read about something so awful?” This goes back to the questions we dealt with in the True Crime class:

  1. What is true crime, and what accounts for its appeal  at this particular point in time?
  2. Why is this type of murder narrative so fascinating? (It can be by turns riveting and tedious.)
  3. “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”

So why couldn’t I stop reading this horrifying story?

1. The author’s voice is extraordinarily compelling.
2. I came to care deeply about the people involved.
3. I was riveted/appalled by the story.
4. I don’t know.

I’ve read quite a few true crime narratives, and lately their number has multiplied as a result of teaching the true crime class. This House of Grief is not only one of the most powerful of that lot – it is one of the most powerful, wrenching, and eloquent stories I’ve ever read in any genre. At the very least, it belongs up there in the pantheon with In Cold Blood, Blood and  Money, Fatal Vision, and The Stranger Beside Me.

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