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Book Review | This House of Grief by Helen Garner

From the publisher: On the evening of Father’s Day, 2005, separated husband Robert Farquharson was driving his three young sons back to their mom’s house when the car veered off the road and plunged into a dam. Farquharson survived the crash, but his boys drowned. Was this a tragic accident, or an act of revenge? The court case that followed became a national obsession.

A parent and their children go into a body of water in a vehicle; the parent survives but the children don’t. This unfortunately is a story we’ve heard before. Robert Farquharson claims he had a coughing fit and passed out. Once in the water, he was able to exit the car and swim to the surface, but his three sons were not. This book about his trial was published in 2014 in Australia; now a new edition has been published in the United States.

I can well imagine what a sensation this was in Australia. I remember the media fascination with Susan Smith in the 1990s after she left her sons to drown. I remember the Jaclyn Dowaliby case in the Chicago area in the 1980s. (That case didn’t involve drowning, but a child reported abducted from her home and found murdered a few days later, and a trial of the mother.)

This House of Grief feels like it was written much longer ago than 2014. It is a call back to classic works of true crime like In Cold Blood. It has a literary feel to it that most modern true crime that I’ve read does not. The author acts as a cool and objective narrator. She has no connection to the case other than reporting on it. She feels emotion – pity, grief – but not passion over whatever happened. Robert Farquharson himself remains a remote figure; I felt I got to know and understand his ex-wife’s parents better than I did Farquharson or his ex-wife.

On page 6, Garner writes, “When I said I wanted to write about the trial, people looked at me in silence, with an expression I could not read.” She is very thoughtful and philosophical as she observes and comments on the trial and all the people involved. The subtitle of the book is “The Story of a Murder Trial,” and the author writes her book as a story (a story with an ending that will not satisfy all her readers).

If you like classic works of true crime, I recommend This House of Grief. If you like graphic descriptions, every criminal detail, and proper closure in your true crime, this may not be the book for you.

I read an advance reader copy of This House of Grief. It was published on October 10, and Galesburg Public Library’s copy will be added to the collection soon.