This House of Grief: book review

book review


Stars: 4

Blurb: Anyone can see the place where the children died. You take the Princes Highway past Geelong, and keep going west in the direction of Colac. Late in August 2006, soon after I had watched a magistrate commit Robert Farquharson to stand trial before a jury on three charges of murder, I headed out that way on a Sunday morning, across the great volcanic plain.

On the evening of 4 September 2005, Father’s Day, Robert Farquharson, a separated husband, was driving his three sons home to their mother, Cindy, when his car left the road and plunged into a dam. The boys, aged ten, seven and two, drowned. Was this an act of revenge or a tragic accident? The court case became Helen Garner’s obsession. She followed it on its protracted course until the final verdict.

In this utterly compelling book, Helen Garner tells the story of a man and his broken life. She presents the theatre of the courtroom with its actors and audience, all gathered for the purpose of bearing witness to the truth, players in the extraordinary and unpredictable drama of the quest for justice.

This House of Grief is a heartbreaking and unputdownable book by one of Australia’s most admired writers.

This House of Grief is filled with sadness, from the first time Garner hears of the death of Jai, Tyler and Bentley, through the court case and through to the end of this tragic real life tale. I remember this case from 2005, and I remember wondering about Robert Farquharson, dismissing the possibility of his guilt because what father would do that to his kids? And then when he was arrested, I assumed he must be guilty. I think I wanted someone to blame more than anything, but such is the luxury of someone on the outside giving their verdict on this tragedy.

This House of Grief is Garner’s attempt to step try to understand how Farquharson could kill his children, and Garner in the beginning, even as she attends the first days of the trial is still in shock at the boys’ passing. There’s an intimacy to her writing, as if she was experienccing this loss first-hand, and for a while that softens the awfulness of this tale. I had to remind myself that she was there following the case not for the families involved but herself.

That’s the thing about true crime – there’s always something voyeuristic about looking in on a family at a time of their greatest loss. Who are we to be fascinated by loss, to the point that we feel these boys’ loss; the mother, Cindy’s loss? Garner’s writing is powerful, softening the voyeuristic tones a bit with respect for the loss of the family when she does run into them in the book during the course of the trial, but that voyeuristic feeling is a hard thing to shake.

My feeling about true crime notwithstanding, it was Garner that made me pick up this book. Her writing is delicate, and she shares every moment of her own doubt and fascination with her readers. The legalese is daunting, even as she does try to soften the court rooms scenes with her own observations of the people involved, rather than focusing on the content of the questions and answers. When she does not understand, she reaches out to friends for answers, with readers looking over her shoulder at the same time.

The book spans Farquharson’s two trials, though the first fills the bulk. What did fascinate me, were the changes she observed in the people years later when they returned for his appeal. We’d like to think a guilty verdict gives the people involved some peace, but there never really is.

I said this is a book filled with sadness, and it’s an attempt to understand why a father would kill his children but can anyone really? There are no answers here.


  • Oh man, I can’t deal with true crime, always so sad, but it sounds like the writing and the author done it justice, and I do love atmospheric writing. I think, with murder, the victims families put everything they feel aside until justice is served, but then once it has, there’s no where to hide, if you get what I mean, there’s nothing else to focus on but grief.

    • Verushka says:

      I think the author did do the topic justice, I think i couldn’t quite get over how uncomfortable I was bc I remembered the case, you know what I mean? When it’s kids, everything is 10x worse I think. And you’re right, the families do put things aside until the end, and here, i think the author did a good job of showing how progressively wrecked they were as the case progressed. It was a hard read in the respect.

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