Helen Garner: This House of Grief

Garner, Helen (2014), This House of Grief: Story of a Murder Trial, Text Publishing
ISBN 9-781925-240689

I had previously only read one other book by Helen Garner – and it was a novel. This House of Grief is a nonfiction account of a murder trial. And it’s so damn good that I now own three more books by Garner. I will admit, I have a soft spot for true crime and have spent too much time looking up details and backgrounds for all the various true crime accounts I have consumed – Podcasts, books, Netflix TV shows….but never once during or after reading Garner’s story was I tempted to draw in outside sources to fill in the picture. And that’s because this book lives somewhere outside of these concerns with crime and prurient interest. Somehow, Garner succeeded in crafting a mournful book about a murderer that exists on a different plane. This is a story about a man who murdered his children, yes, but it’s also the story of an elderly novelist and journalist who attends his trial, who tries to wrap her mind around this crime, around the man accused of it, and the doomed dance of his defender in court. Garner pays attention to voice and gestures, to faces and bodies, creating before our eyes a powerful portrait of an instance of humanity having failed – for whatever reason.

The father who killed his children never admits to his deeds, and so Garner – and we as readers – are never offered an explanation, there’s nothing relieving us from the darkness at the heart of this criminal act. There’s no Mindhunters-like psychological framing and explanation, no confession of passions run amuck. The prosecutor, Garner herself and some other people who have been drawn into the maelstrom of this trial, they all offer some small explanations. Frustration, jealousy, sadness, anger. These are all possibilities, but what unites them all is the shocking way in which they are insufficient to explain what happened here. None of these seem to be enough to explain why a man would drown his children that he appeared to love very much. And Garner isn’t alone watching this trial. She brings along a teenager who has the requisite time, and now and then she also talks to lawyer friends of hers. This constant dialogue with others creates a kind of chorus of people none of which have any doubt of the father’s guilt. He is clearly, obviously guilty, he smells of guilt to Garner – and thus to us. And all of it is told in a language that is almost without flaw. Elegant, clear, Garner summons an army of short sentences and phrases, only occasionally letting the spill all over the page in small poetic images and the author’s acute distress. This trial – and the book- must have been hard to live with. And we are fortunate that Garner persevered.

In this time of #metoo and the crumbling façade of violent and mediocre masculinity, this is a curious time to be writing this book. True, it came out in 2014, before the Zeitgeist shifted so significantly in 2017 – but still. I have not read Garner’s other nonfiction books, but from some overviews I saw that The First Stone, Garner’s 1995 study of a sexual harassment case, garnered the kind of critical attention that makes me suspect its implied thesis hews rather close to the one that Katie Roiphe centered in her own book on a similar topic, the now infamous The Morning After. Whenever Roiphe puts pen to paper these days to comment on sexual harassment, there’s a chorus from twitter, blogs and many such sources, reminding all of us that this is the author of The Morning After and thus we should be disregarding her writings and opinions. And it’s true that much of that book is unpleasant to read and distorted a very real problem. If Garner’s The First Stone went into a similar direction, it seems fortunate that writing the book didn’t tarnish her reputation. And in many ways, This House of Grief represents a kind of about-face, a shift in emphasis.

Garner’s book never leaves us in doubt: this man is guilty. And his guilt is connected to things Garner never really manages to suss out. The opaque horror at the core of the book is, however, insistently connected to various failures of masculinity, to male anxiety, to masculine violence and dread. This is where all of the explanations, however incomplete, inefficient, or unlikely they may be, lead. If this was a novel, you’d consider it overdetermined, too constructed, too constricted by the author’s will to make it all cohere. But here we are. From the unlikely name of the accused, Robert Farquharson, to the helpless dance of his defender and the wise voice of Garner’s teenage companion, it all coheres, in a compelling but distressing way. One of Garner’s epigraphs to the book quotes a lawyer “walking past,” who says that “[Robert Farquharson] can’t possibly have done it. But there’s no other explanation.” We get small snippets of crime scene investigations, of small doubts offered, but they are drowned in the better sense that the prosecution’s case makes. That man murdered his children – in part because he was a man and couldn’t deal with what was expected of him.

Gender is woven throughout the book. Later in the book we learn of the endless devotion shown to Farquharson by his sisters, and even, to a point, by his ex wife. We learn of the pitfalls of this kind of devotion, but mainly, we are explained, often implicitly, of the way Robert Farquharson fails to deal with his failures. Financially on the cliffs, left by his wife for the constructor who was employed by them, with severely reduced contact to his children, Farquharson doesn’t do anything sensible, he doesn’t pick himself up, he doesn’t move on, he doesn’t try other projects, he wallows in his failures. The trial specifically notes, absent any admission or confession by Farquharson himself, that driving a shabby old car would naturally feel emasculating and humiliating, an assumption that most people involved in the case seem to share. Garner includes a curious discussion of masculine attractiveness in it:

“But, having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight in Cindy Farquarson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect. Spellbound on the back veranda between my two grandsons, I remembered Camille Paglia’s coat-trailing remark that if women were running the world, we’d still be living in grass huts.”

If Roiphe is a bit infamous among progressives, Paglia has, since publishing her (inexplicably) still-read tome on literature that’s short on analysis and long on caustic diatribes, become a veritable troll, intensely supportive of fringe anti-feminist opinions. Garner’s inclusion of Paglia here is curious. It makes no contextual sense that she’d cite Paglia as an authority here. Instead, what we are offered is a complicated tableau of masculinity, feminity and attraction that is presented as contradictory.

Farquharson maintains to the end, and one assumes, to this day, that what happened was an accident, that he blacked out due to a freak medical condition. We, however, stare at his horrible deeds, and try to understand them from the explanations offered, all of which somehow come back to notions of injured manhood. There’s a specific, unpleasant kind of violence that tends to accompany people socialized as male, at least in our societies, our kind of socialization. Helen Garner, as an observer in the courtroom, and her teenage friend, serves as a kind of Greek chorus to all this. Woeful cries, exclamations, repetitions. In a sense we don’t need to be told what Farquharson’s fault, his ἁμαρτία is. It is implied in the darkness under the words, under every gesture. The very inexplicability of it, which rubs up against the overall very simple case, the amplitude of evidence feeds this sense. Elisabeth Roudinesco, in an early chapter of La Part Obscure de Nous-Mêmes, points to the shifting explanations of what the “perverted” people are – how do we contextualize their missteps. And, she says, as divine explanations (with demons preying on those weak of faith, found themselves on the retreat, the answers came slower, and with more contradictions. Later chapters invoking Peter Singer point to how complicated, really, these explanations have become. In This House of Grief, on the one hand, we are given an extremely simple situation, a biblical scenario, if you will, but the father’s silence, and the terror that always comes with these stark, hard to understand these crimes, these inhumane human decisions hark back to Roudinesco’s discussion of the dark parts within us. Greed, anger, these are easy to grasp, but what happened in Farquharson’s head, in his car, seems more easily explained with demons, the devil, schizophrenia, one of these. But there are no demons, there’s no devil and Farquharson was sound of mind. So what now?

As it happens, Garner has a horrible little theory of her own, which the trial judge and defense lawyer both remove from the courtroom: “the long black thread of Farquharson’s ‘depression’.” It is not to be discussed, it is not to be presented to a jury. Much of the book is spent watching Garner watch the defense fail, in a kind of replication of Farquharson’s previous failures:

“the final fortnight of evidence was like watching, in ghastly slow motion, a man slither down the face of a cliff. Sometimes his shirt would snag on a protruding branch, or his fall would be arrested by a tiny ledge, a fragile outcrop; but the fabric would stretch and snap, the narrow shelf would crumble, and down he would go again, feet first, eyes wide open, arms outstretched into the void.”

But while watching this cascade of failures, by Farquharson, by his lawyer, by his defense, his humanity, Garner reaches into the bag of possibilities, and draws out the idea of attempted suicide. Taking his children with him, Farquharson attempted to remove his presence from the world, remove his failure, his inadequacy, and commit murder as a horrible way to wipe the slate completely clean. This idea Garner mentions fairly early, but she doesn’t let go of it. The only explanation she can think of to escape the horror of unexplainable murder is a more graspable, more understandable murder-suicide. There are books on this. This we can understand, this we have studied. Ultimately, it’s unimportant whether Garner is right. This House of Grief is only partially about Farquharson’s trial. It is about a writer trying to deal with something inexplicable and to contain it in clean, safe language. It is an enormous book.

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Helen Garner: The Spare Room

Garner, Helen (2008), The Spare Room, Henry Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-8888-5

DSC_0587There are few topics that are as difficult to write about as death. At the same time, there are equally few topics that get as much exposure as this one either. It seems a go-to topic for writers intent on writing solemn/serious literature, ranging from mediocre writers and their books (cf. Paul Harding’s Tinkers), to excellent writers and their books (cf. Graham Swift’s Last Orders) and excellent writers and their mediocre books (cf. John Banville’s The Sea). I have to admit that as a reader, I tend to be a tad suspicious of such books (an offshoot of these are novels about the Shoah (see my review of HHhH)). I have, however, recently read two novels in the genre that I found very impressive. Like the best books focusing on the death of individuals, they deliver a take on the ars moriendi that is interesting and original. Interesting enough that I will devote two reviews to them, one for each. These two novels were published within just a few years of each other, in different corners of the world but they are both attempts to examine this vast, difficult topic within less than two hundred pages, and both use simple language, with short sentences and small observations in order to do it. In both books it is cancer that ends a life and throws the lives of those around the terminally ill protagonist into turmoil. I’ll be basically writing a double review in two parts, posted separately. Part one is on The Spare Room and part two is on Grace (you’ll find it here)

bright-sidedHelen Garner’s The Spare Room is told from the perspective of Helen, whose friend Nicola, weakened by cancer, comes to visit in order to undergo an ‘alternative’ treatment. The novel focuses on the weeks that Nicola stays with her friend and shows how what is effectively palliative care can take its toll on those looking after terminally ill people, and how anger, frustration and exhaustion can completely take over a household. Its language is extremely simple, but not flat, filled with quotidian observations, moving chronologically from day to day with careful, bitter languor. We don’t get a look inside the mind of the dying person: she is instead reflected by Helen’s reaction to her. Linn Ullmann’s Grace, by comparison, sweeps through the life of a man called Johan, who is terminally ill with cancer. We are mostly sharing his point of view, including his reflections of what appears to be a failed life. The book jumps back and forth, and it is told in similarly simple, but highly evocative language. Ullmann doesn’t much bother with day to day events as she chronicles both a bitter life and a bitter death. Garner’s novel has the weight and care of a novel fraught with experience and thoughtfulness, while Ullmann’s appears to be more reliant on melancholic set pieces. At the same time, Ullmann’s novel reaches further than Garner’s. I can recommend both books, with reservations.

DSC_0591Helen Garner is an Australian writer born in 1942, and The Spare Room is her first novel in 16 years. This novel feels lived-in; the protagonist, Helen, feels fully fleshed out and the book is extraordinarily well grounded as far as its setting is concerned. It’s set in Melbourne and while the writer doesn’t offer many details about the city, all the references feel on cue and natural. There’s a natural tendency to consider this book somehow autobiographical, not just because the writer and the protagonist share the same first name and live in the same city. It’s the writing itself that creates this feeling. Helen Garner does not attempt to go for a poetic, elegiac style. Instead her writing is simple, never attempting to buoy simple situations by presenting them on an elevated linguistic plate. We find things the way they are. When people “slouch in front of the TV”, then that is what we are told. But the simplicity is never flat. I have been increasingly frustrated by contemporary novelists who assume that simplicity in style does not require the same degree of deliberation and artfulness as would a more flowery kind of writing. Books like Blake Butler’s otherwise very intriguing There Is No Year seem to be very disinterested in aesthetics. Garner’s book does not dispense with musicality, and it does not completely ignore the option of elegiac phrasing where appropriate. Rather, what Garner’s appears to be doing is reaching for the word or phrase that is genuinely most appropriate to her given the situation and syntactic context, instead of reaching into the bag of phrases, as a lesser writer would. Given all this, I am not surprised that this is a writer that won’t be rushed from book to book.

DSC_0595And it’s not just the prose itself that is believable. Helen, the protagonist, and Nicola, her cancer-stricken friend, are also instantly plausible. To be fair, if they were not, the book would instantly crash and burn. Unlike Grace, which is couched in a sea of metaphors, small stories, big scenes etc., the simplicity of The Spare Room means that unless the main character is believable, the distress and struggle, the chaos and conflicts, the overall damage that death did to Helen’s life simply from passing through it for a short while, it would just seem like agitated but irrelevant noise. Garner does not let ‘big themes’ do the work. Her book works hard to convince us that these lives matter, that it matters what happens to them. And it feels like naming the protagonist ‘Helen’ is part of the author’s attempt to drive home the plausibility of the situation and the significance of the two lives that are entangled for a short time in Melbourne. The fact that all this works so well is especially impressive given that in many other way, the book is deliberately staging a scene, structured around the titular “spare room”. It would be a misreading to dismiss the book as simple, whether we read it as realistic or staged. Cindi Katz and Janice Monk have written very eloquently about the role of spaces and geography in the life course of women, and how fear-based discourse – and an isolation of homes – often limits the mobility of women in geographic spaces. The way Nicola is compelled to travel in order to defeat fear (and this also involves leaving the spare room Helen prepares for her), and the fact that her temporary home is inverted as an unsafe place, a place where she cannot possibly find healing, all this presents exciting angles for reading this book, which cannot be easily exhausted. Other complexities are introduced by various objects and people, who often feel symbolic, arranged on a stage.

DSC_0590Garner offers us, at the outset, an epigraph, a quote from fellow Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley: “It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep.” This could mean several things: from actual sleep to preparing a place for someone’s final rest. As we see quickly, what’s meant is something in between. Death just passes through, but the spare room becomes part of the process of dying. The aforementioned art of dying is examined by showing the reader someone who struggles with it, and in truly medieval fashion, they are struggling on a carefully circumscribed stage. This is the room, which is being prepared as we enter the novel, because the book starts before Helen’s friend Nicola arrives. Nicola has stage IV bowel cancer and travels to Melbourne in order to undertake a sketchy treatment at the Theodore clinic. Even though Nicola has not yet arrived at Helen’s home, she is already there in spirit. We are witness to Helen’s preparations for Nicola and as the reader will find out, preparing a place means more than just providing some clean sheets. Now, on some level we all understand that: most of us have at some point experienced the incredible kindness of having a space prepared for us in someone else’s house – and by extension, someone else’s life. But Helen’s situation is different.

DSC_0585She is careful about adapting the room for Nicola in two different ways. One of them is meant to reflect Nicola’s deteriorating physical state. Helen worries about the floor accommodating Nicola’s frailty, and the colors and shapes in the room making Nicola feel welcome. The other concern is expressed with much more levity, as Helen moves the bed “to align the sleeper with the planet’s positive energy flow, or something?” These two preparations are not equal and are not equally expressed. Helen is a rational, careful, caring adult. She has prepared a space in her mind, as well as in her house, but unlike the spare room, the space in her mind is an assortment of rational medical knowledge about Nicola’s cancer. This is where the novel’s main conflict arises. Nicola has no intention of getting medical treatment. The clinic she is visiting will provide a variety of dubious treatments, including stays in a sauna, cupping, and above all, Vitamin C. As it turns out, these treatments are not just dubious, but they also massively weaken Nicola, who, in addition to all this, steadfastly refuses pain medication and as a result, becomes more and more frail and irritable. While Helen knows to expect some of this, the brute force of Nicola’s irritation and anger is tough to deal with. What’s more, Helen is perfectly aware that what she is doing is basically humoring a dying person. Helen knows full well that what she is doing is giving palliative care. She is “watching” Nicola, but at the same time, she is her caretaker. The room she prepared for her friend, in her house, in her head and in her life has been stocked with provisions, stocked with help. When Dr. Theodore, the unpleasant and clearly untrustworthy head of the Theodore clinic, imposes too much of a strain on her friend, Helen intervenes.

DSC_0589All of this happens in the span of a slim book and Garner’s writing is perfect for this: as I mentioned earlier, it’s simple, but at the same time it’s precise: she enumerates the elements of her world, as she prepared it for Nicola, and as it evolves during her stay. Events are also stated with care, as are Helen’s thoughts. No matter how much chaos arises, no matter how bad the emotional turmoil is, the writing never slips. This makes for devastating reading, because, robbed of poeticisms, what we are left with is the stark reality of how death enters the life of these two women. The struggle within Nicola, a struggle to believe in the possibility of being healed, is repeated in Nicola and Helen’s interactions. Nicola is learning to die. The phases of her moods seem to roughly reflect the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. Helen’s love and patience allows Nicola to find a way to move on, find a way to accept death, or at least not fight it with the help of dangerous quacks. Helen Garner’s novel refuses typical narratives of cancer, and more importantly: it doesn’t offer a moral lecture on how to be a good cancer patient. We don’t get to see Nicola’s thoughts. We infer the challenges, the irritation, the conflicts from the effect she has on Helen and the things she says to her. But the truth about the pain and the approaching death, these things Garner withholds from us. Preparing a space for one’s own death is different from preparing a space wherein someone else’s death unfolds. Medieval ars moriendi tracts didn’t just instruct people on how to die well, they also instructed the family and friends of dying people on how to treat them, and in a way, this is an explication of such an idea: how to prepare a space for someone else to spend some time dying, not only as a spare room in a house, but also as a mental space in one’s head and life, to accommodate the rage, fear and sadness of a dying person.


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