This House of Grief | Helen Garner

Kernel Fiona Fyfe is a former criminal lawyer, as such she brings a strong love for all books that are law related, being either fiction or non-fiction. She offers a unique perspective to items I would just take for granted. You can tell when she reviews a true crime book, her passion and past expertise comes to the fore. And so it is with THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF: THE STORY OF A MURDER TRAIL from Helen Garner. Garner has an amazing eye for criminal cases and is known for her amazing talent at writing about them, and with this one you can tell from the awards below she has excelled again. It will not be easy reading for all as THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF looks at the trial of Robert Farquharson, who was convicted of drowning his three young sons on Father’s Day 2005 by driving his car into a farm dam. You may remember the case, I do, Garner tells an unbiased account of the courtroom as it unfolds and will hold crime enthusiasts spellbound. THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF: THE STORY OF A MURDER TRAIL is out now from our friends at Text Publishing, it can be obtained in bookstores or in paperback or e-book from HERE. Enjoy Fi’s thoughts……all the best……JK.

  • award Winner, Ned Kelly Awards, Best True Crime, 2015
  • award Shortlisted, Nielsen BookData Booksellers Choice Award, 2015
  • award Shortlisted, Kibble Literary Award, 2015
  • award Longlisted, Stella Prize, 2015
  • award Shortlisted, Indie Book Awards, 2015
  • award Shortlisted, Australian Book Industry General Non-Fiction Award, 2015
  • award Shortlisted, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, 2015
  • award Shortlisted, Colin Roderick Literary Award, 2015


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Helen Garner is one of Australia’s most distinguished writers. In 1978 she won the National Book Council Award for her first novel, MONKEY GRIP which was adapted for film in 1981. In JOE CINQUE’S CONSOLATION : A TRUE STORY OF DEATH, GRIEF AND THE LAW published in 2004, she attended the trials of Anu Singh and her friend and co-accused, Madhavi Rao. Singh was later convicted of the manslaughter of her boyfriend Joe Cinque as a result of administering him a lethal heroin dose. In THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF Garner is concerned with the criminal trials and appeals of Robert Farquharson who was convicted of drowning his three young sons on Father’s Day 2005 by driving his car into a farm dam.

Book shops and libraries have well stocked true crime sections often written by journalists who have covered a trial or taken a special interest in a case. As a former criminal lawyer I am an avid consumer of non-fiction crime and I’m often disappointed. It’s a different scenario altogether if victims or their families have written an account of their ordeal. No one is suggesting that lay people or ghost writers need be au fait with the intricacies of evidence and legal procedure and these stories stand alone. It is journalists, especially those who have failed to research properly and have misinterpreted proceedings in criminal trials, who give me cause to cringe.


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There are no cringe-worthy factors in THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF. Garner has recounted the long days in which she attended both of Farquharson’s trials that stretched over a number of years with empathy and accuracy. Her relaying of details contained in court transcripts and her eye witness accounts of brutal cross examination, the dock statement of Farquharson and a series of witness testimonies are insightful and sensitive. Garner possesses a keen eye for detail and nuance and is skilled at describing the anomalies of the human psyche. Appropriately, she quotes American writer, Janet Malcolm; “Jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence but in actuality they are studying character.”

As in her treatment of the subject matter in JOE CINQUE’S CONSOLATION, Garner is careful to keep an open mind throughout the trials and expresses sincerely the traumatic effect the case had on her emotionally. She is candid and raw when she discusses her reactions to the court material and the harrowing forensic details. Ever mindful of the anguish and trauma the children’s mother and her family are suffering, Garner does not allow herself to become an intrusive presence in their grief. As a result, there is no interview with the bereaved mother, Cindy Gambino.

In Megan Norris’ book ON FATHER’S DAY, the story is told largely from Cindy Gambino’s perspective. The book refers to the children’s deaths as “revenge murders” and intimately examines Gambino’s emotional destruction. Reasonably enough, there are scant details regarding the court proceedings or trials. Clearly it is Cindy’s story and rightfully so. Having read this book because I am intrigued by the case, I knew that Garner’s book would take a different tack because Garner is a seasoned court attender and she is interested in the machinations of a defence case.


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The title of THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF comes from a quote by Dezso Kosztolanyi in KORNEL ESTI – “this treasury of pain, this house of grief”. It is an apt description of a criminal court where so much torment, loss and agony is played out. Garner is acutely aware of the suffering that surrounds her within the hallowed rooms and corridors. She hears it in the wailing and weeping of Gambino, the snivelling and blubbering of the accused and the tears of the extended family members and the jury. The emotional toll exacted on the participants in this tragedy is not lost on Garner for a moment.

The cast of characters that feature in Farquharson’s trials are a varied and colourful group. Prosecutor in the first trial, Jeremy Rapke, is razor sharp and “lightning on his feet.” Defence Counsel, the loud and larrikin-like Peter Morrissey SC, doggedly pursues justice for a most unpopular client all the way to the High Court. Jury members can be seen developing friendships and allegiances with one another. Farquharson’s sisters are an ever-present domineering force throughout. Cindy Gambino’s parents occasionally chat with Garner at the coffee cart during adjournments and a tentative friendship is established.

The Crown’s star witness and former best friend of the accused, Peter King is referred to by Garner as “a broken-hearted boofhead.” King’s ineloquent but consistent evidence of an alleged pre-tragedy conversation he had with Farquharson and his attempted demolition under cross-examination by defence Counsel, makes for disquieting reading. King’s immense guilt at his delay in reporting Farquharson’s claims made outside a local fish and chip shop, is palpable. “It was the cross King had to bear, and his clumsy carrying of it endowed him, in the end, with a dignity that withstood the worst the defence could throw at him.” Truth, guilt and innocence aside, Garner deals fairly and intelligently with both sides of this story.


4 and a Half Pops


Kernel Fiona was a criminal defence lawyer in a former life and now critiques books and writes short stories. She can’t resist spending large tracts of time in libraries, book shops and at writer’s festivals. Hopelessly in love with the written word, she told JK when applying for a writing position that “I would rather read then breathe” – I knew I had my next reviewer right then. You can catch her and her tweets at @FionaJayneFyfe1

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.