KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Books

Sympathy for the devil: Helen Garner on This House of Grief

by Veronica Sullivan , August 22, 20141 Comment

Helen_Garner

Helen Garner’s desire to identify and dissect the worst of human nature has always provoked passionate debate and, often, criticism. This same urge drives her new book, This House of Grief, in which Garner examines the trial of Robert Farquharson and seeks to understand the man who drove his three sons into a dam, drowning them.

In her opening night address at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Thursday evening, Garner told interviewer Ramona Koval she was surprised by the angry responses she received when she announced she wanted to cover the Farquharson case. She speculated this apprehension derived from the belief she was ‘soft on men’. But Garner is soft on no one; it is a hallmark of her fiction and nonfiction that she both embraces and condemns the best and worst of us, without exception or bias.

Koval asked whether this general sense of apprehension was justified, whether Garner found herself sympathising with Farquharson. ‘I was not attempting to arouse sympathy,’ said Garner, ‘but to express my own empathy for him. It was an unpopular view to think that he might not be guilty, and that interested me greatly.’

9781922079206_large_coverThis empathy is the crux of Garner’s unflinching approach to journalistic investigation; and it is also partly why she is so regularly accused of being callous or unfeeling in her nonfiction. She excavates the worst parts of us all, and refuses to allow us to hide them away in dark corners. Such bottomless empathy arouses resentment. We do not want to be made to identify with those who actions we condemn (Farquharson in This House of Grief; Joe Cinque’s murderous girlfriend in Joe Cinque’s Consolation; the narrator of The Spare Room, who resents and rages against the ignorance of her dying friend). Garner depicts a humanity that is universal, and universally flawed. She is necessarily ruthless and unflinching in doing so – two words frequently used to describe her and her writing. But she is also calm and careful, willing us all to be better by seeking the nuances in humanity’s worst transgressions. Garner thoughtfully described the pull the Farquharson case exerted on her, and the doubts and uncertainties it evoked. ‘The whole book is in a sense quivering on some edge. It might look as those I did that for effect, but that was how it was.’

Garner frequently focuses on deviations from the expected course, rather than on cut-and-dried legal processes. ‘Courts are supposed to be places of reason,’ she said. ‘They’re not supposed to be places of emotion, but they really are.’ She spoke with evident relish of moments when the courtroom becomes an ‘intimate space’, raw humanity leaking through the conventions. ‘You can see when someone breaks into a sweat. You can see when someone expresses nerves by clenching and unclenching their buttocks.’ Such evidence of humanity intrigues Garner, and her writing invites readers to engage in the extremes of empathy she herself practices.

Despite a relative lack of access to the key players in the case, Garner felt connected with them. In this, she said she was guided primarily by instinct, ‘old, shit-kicking, journalistic instinct. You look at what people are doing and it seems to be radiating meaning.’ She was willing to be swayed by Farquharson and his legal team’s defence, to be persuaded of his innocence. She admitted that at times, ‘I longed for him not be guilty, because it’s just unbearable to believe that a man would do such a thing’. Ultimately, Garner was convinced of his guilt, as was the court, and This House of Grief dwells somewhere in the space where these personal and legal verdicts coincide.

Garner is clearly obsessed by the legal system, in both its symbolic and literal manifestations. She said she is drawn to the courtroom as a place where, ‘you can contemplate the darkest points of human behaviour in a way that’s formalised’. It is crucial, she said, that in these matters there is ‘some sort of spirit of the law’. Just as the old-fashioned courtroom procedures and judges in their wigs and gowns represent something bigger than themselves, Robert Farquharson, too, embodies something more complex than solely himself and his crime. He symbolises the worst manifestation of human nature, the devil whose existence we wish to deny. With typically resolute ferocity, Garner refuses to allow Farquharson’s monstrousness to eclipse his wretched humanity.

Veronica Sullivan is Online Editor of Kill Your Darlings.




  • Bethany

    I finished this book today. Excruciating tale of grief and revenge. I need some time to think about this, quietly.
    Helen Garner has written an account, full of empathy and confusion and real raw pain.
    I commend her for this, and for her stamina in following the cases so closely. I don’t know how she does this, and stays sane and whole.
    Thank you Helen

9781926428239

Abigail Ulman

Cold Feet and Hot Little Hands: Abigail Ulman on writing – and not writing – her first book

Post-book deal, every time I sat down to try to write something, I felt paralysed by some kind of literary stage fright. I had shown my work to other people before – for writing workshops, and submissions to literary journals and competitions – but I had never before written a story while thinking This story is going to be published in a book. Or, more accurately, This story idea is nowhere near good enough to be published in a book. Read more »

9781926428239

Sian Campbell

Girlhood and The Woman-Child in Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands

Each of the stories in Hot Little Hands navigates girlhood in some way, from the lives of high school-age teenagers to those of young twentysomething women. ‘Girl things’ such as horse camp, gymnastics, feminised bodies, clothing, periods, crushes, yoga and gossip weave through the fabric of the text. Though the subject matter is often adult – the girls of Hot Little Hands navigate abortion, sex trafficking, young motherhood, drugs, and deportation – the girls themselves are not… even when they technically are. Read more »

Dont-Try-This-at-Home-_-cover_-FINAL1-300x460

James Tierney

Subscriber Stories: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home

As a subscriber to publisher And Other Stories’ distribution model, I am in the unusual position of reviewing a book – Angela Readman’s short story collection Don’t Try This At Home – that thanks me by name for making its existence possible. Read more »

amy-schumer

Rebecca Shaw

Amy Schumer and the equal right to be funny

I don’t think men should be banned from making jokes about contentious subjects. I am of the belief that anything can and should be laughed about, and if done right, it can be beneficial. But more often, women are doing it right, and women are doing it better. Read more »

womens-home-companion

Kate Iselin

Trivial Pursuits: The media and ‘women’s interests’

Women, especially in public life, exist as a part of men’s worlds – a big part, sure – but still a part. Even as women become more vocal in demanding accurate and respectful representation, we are kept at arms length by a mainstream media which struggles to catch up. Read more »

SGbTsPQ

Rebecca Shaw

Command and Control: Trophy daughters and overprotective dads

There is no doubt that an overprotective parent is better than a parent who couldn’t care less what their child gets up to. And there is no doubt that most overprotective mums and dads are well-meaning. But paternal ‘protectiveness’ shticks often boil down to fathers not wanting their daughters to have sex, and by extension, get pregnant. Read more »

kstew

Joanna di Mattia

Kristen Stewart Through the Looking-Glass

Kristen Stewart is an actress who has been criticised, maligned even, for an acting style that transmits from set to screen as sullen, adolescent, wooden, blank, fidgety and inelegant. But perhaps she’s an actress concerned with authenticity, and the defining feature of her style is to show us herself by appearing like she’s not acting at all. Read more »

it-follows-4

Anwen Crawford

Behind You: The subtler horror of It Follows

I don’t watch many horror films. Lifelong victim of an overactive and slightly morbid imagination, I regularly envisage disasters, natural or otherwise, that might befall me, without requiring the added stimulus of cinema. Read more »

anne-dorval-and-antoine-olivier-pilon-in-xavier-dolans-mommy

Joanna Di Mattia

All About His Mother: Xavier Dolan’s fierce women

Xavier Dolan has created an exuberant body of cinema that privileges women (and others on the margins) as complex, chaotic beings. Dolan’s fierce mothers are cleaved from the pedestal that so much of cinema places them on, so that they may dig around in the dirt that is life. Read more »

Struggle+Street+KEY+IMAGE

Anwen Crawford

Shame and Stigma on Struggle Street

Struggle Street framed poverty as a combination of genetic inheritance and natural disaster – a barrier to be overcome only through ceaseless positive effort. Those who sabotage themselves through bad choices are therefore fair targets for our scorn, while those who gain employment or remain sober deserve praise for overcoming the odds. The deserving and undeserving poor, in other words. What an old story. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

DUKMRUTRHLU31425064919799

Katie Williams

The Currency of Games: The real world cost of in-game purchases

A new item introduced in World of Warcraft lets players purchase a month of playing time for the real-life price of $20, which they can then sell to other players in-game in exchange for virtual currency. It’s an exchange of real money for a virtual currency that has in-game value but none in the physical, ‘real’ world – and it makes me incredibly uneasy. Read more »

Arts House_Image_10c_Oedipus Schmoedipus (post)_Credit – Ellis Parrinder copy

Jane Howard

A Case for Diversity in Theatre

Attracting different audiences to the theatre is about many things. It’s about accessibility for people without high disposable incomes, but it’s also about marketing and publicity; about creating venues which are physically accessible for people with disabilities; and about ensuring the performers on stage are as diverse as we want their audiences to be. Read more »

2909252617_1f456d0c81_b

Jane Howard

A Working-Class Mythology: Ironing boards at the theatre

In theatre, there is perhaps no prop piece more mythologised than the ironing board, which came to signify the birth of contemporary British theatre. Read more »

ForceM6609

Jane Howard

Witness and Connection at Melbourne’s Dance Massive

In a city where it feels not a day goes by without an arts festival, or three, happening, Melbourne’s Dance Massive is resolutely unique. Australia’s largest dance festival is by necessity heavily reliant on Melbourne-based companies and shows that will go on to tour independently of the festival. The festival is undeniably of, and for, the dance sector in Melbourne. Read more »