For the Sumerians, from the place between the rivers, the afterlife wasn’t much to look forward to. Paradise, the upper room, had not yet been invented, the underworld not yet differentiated. The place was a grim realm of greyishness where the dead spirit wandered, a conception that matched the circumstances of their disposal. The recently deceased would have their bones picked clean by the birds, after which their bones would be deposited beneath the floor of the house, the skull removed and sat in the “lap”. Once a year, they would be removed for an ancestral banquet joining the living and the dead across the great divide. Babies and toddlers were the only ones permitted to go to the underworld intact, curled up, sleeping. Thus had the dead been buried for thousands of years, from the first cities, 10 millennia years old, such as Catal Huyuk, to the beginning of the great religions. The practice was most likely a continuation of early homo sapiens practice, in which the bones of the dead were tramped down in caves.
The early civilisations added the notion of wandering, of a grey realm, a feature arising from the river deltas where the first cities had arisen. Their origin stories are of people formed from silt, from marshes, solidity arising. Such marshy deltas made high-yield agriculture, and thus cities and writing, possible — they are the waters God looks upon the face of in the beginning of Genesis. What could be more obvious than that to the waters we would return? Was it really seen as soon bad, this endless undifferentiated afterlife? Or did the horror of it develop later, prompting the invention of a cartoon paradise of milk and honey? Did that grey world offer a sort of nirvana, a suspension of being, in the suspension of earth in water? Bodies of water, as a means of suicide, appear to offer that consolation, of doing no violence to one’s own intact body, but simply merging back with the great world, curling up in it.
When Robert Farquharson ploughed off the road on the night of Father’s Day 2004 and put his car in a dam, turning off the lights and engine as it went to the bottom of the deep body of water (it was made by filling the hole from which the stone for the local road had been quarried), was that what he was seeking out? So many suicides in Australia, a place of long drives and iron-hard trees lining the roads, are simply a turn of the steering wheel, an act of whim and fuckit far easier than putting the farm gun in your mouth. Reading the opening chapter of Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, in which the initial event and the meticulous process of recovering the car are detailed, the brown nothingness of the water and its surprising depth terrifyingly recreated, it is hard not to conclude that, consciously or otherwise, Farquharson was seeking out that peace, a death that was not-death, a part of the world that was without resistance, difference, ex-wives, new boyfriends, crap cars, shit jobs, poor health, declining towns, disappointment and failure. Quite possibly, he was also trying to drown them and survive himself, as revenge against his ex-wife for leaving him and doing well without him, but the two ideas are not exclusive.
From without, and doubtless from within, the event has such a quality of nightmare about it that any notion of a clear plan of action doesn’t explain anything. Garner’s account of the killings, the two court cases in which Farquharson was twice convicted and the years in between, will be taken as part of a familiar true-crime genre, coming face to face with evil, albeit with the high-end, metatwist in which the author questions self about motives, personal prejudices and the ability of such a genre to actually get at the truth.
But if that were all that were going on here, it wouldn’t hold our interest right to the end. The crime was horrifying, the explanation Farquharson gave for it pretty unconvincing — a coughing fit that caused him to lose control at the exact moment necessary to plunge into the dam — and there was some real Law and Order stuff along the way, with a friend of Farquharson’s wearing a wire to get him to admit on tape to having had conversations about killing his kids. But the retrial provided no great reversal, or courtroom moment, the verdict was confirmed, and by the time it had all ended nearly a decade later, the mother of the children had remarried and started a new family, and Farquharson was in chokey for 35 years. For the mother and her family, life drifted into a middle area, expressed by the mother’s parents — whom Garner visits (taking a detour, on a whim, as she’s travelling down a road) having befriended them through the trial — as simple circumscription. They don’t do much gardening because the kids helped and it’s too sad, they don’t do this or that, because.
In the end, there are no answers, and what answers could there be? What if tomorrow, Farquharson confessed it all from his cell? Or was operated on for a brain tumour and discovered to have undiagnosed propensity to seizure and small blackout? What if an angel appeared in the skies and told us that the record of his soul told us he was innocent? Nothing can undo the event at the heart of the book, and on the surface, that is one thing that the book — utterly compelling, arresting in a way that takes it far beyond the guilty, charged voyeurism of most true crime reading — is dealing with. In a manner that Garner has done in Cosmo Cosmolino and The Spare Room, a central dilemma is being staged — that of boomers whose transition to adulthood exactly matched the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, and who have come out the other side of it with a failed humanism and an unassuaged search for Meaning. Ostensibly, it is about evil, what it might be, whether Farquharson was possessed of it.
Through the whole story, centred around the first trial and the court itself — the house of grief — Garner holds onto a belief in the possibility of Farquharson’s innocence long after most of the people around her, which functions as the book’s drag line. Every moment is shot through with redemption and the hope for it and much of the action has more in common with Christian mediaeval allegory than anything resembling drama. Garner and a precocious 16-year-old daughter of a friend accompanying her take coffee at the van outside the court, and during this communion the spirits come — lawyers mainly, people she knew in Carlton when they were ratbags, now respectable, prospering or declining, with the practice, the McMansion and the house in Lorne, or going out backwards, smoking themselves to a heart attack. They offer temptations: insights into the fact that the law is not a place where an accounting of events will happen, not because it is corrupt or imperfect, but it is not that sort of thing at all, that much of what Garner is coming to this trial for is a sort of category error about what’s going on.
Her companion is the affectless millennial voice, deprived or undburdened of a boomer’s transitional desires for depth, depth of any sort, in life, observing that Farquharson seems simply guilty from the start, his defence flimsy and desperate. Farquharson’s sisters drift in and out, not so much convinced of his innocence as simply assuming it because of siding with him. They’re happy with a defence cross-examination that Garner feels achieved little because “our expert said the other guy was wrong”.
Everything Garner encounters seems to be drawing away from a desire that the case, the event, the judgement will provide some hint, to something. The defence case rests on the possibility that Farquharson had had a specific type of coughing attack — a syncope — at the exact moment that would cause a black out long enough to plough into the dam, coming to with sufficient presence of mind to get out of the car and survive, and that police work on the tyre marks and other forensics was wrong.
The prosecution had the tyre marks showing a conscious steering of the car into the dam, the rareness of syncope, the likelihood one would remain befuddled for minutes after it hit even if it had, Farquharson’s earlier statements, recollected on tape, that he would get his ex-wife for dumping him, throwing him out of the house, keeping the better car, and then moving in with the bloke who had concreted the drive of the house they had been building together.
They had the two young men who had first seen Farquharson after he climbed out of the dam, insisting on being driven to his ex-wife’s to tell her what he’d done, rather than diving down and calling the emergency services. They had nothing that would categorically remove doubt of guilt; everything that would remove the possibility that such a doubt could be reasonable.
Garner, or the narrator-character of the book, held on to the doubt and ignored the requirement of reasonability. In other words, the doubt became a faith. In other words, she was looking for a miracle. It’s the miracle looked for in law, the idea that it is more than earthly law, that it is divine and promises restoration. The plunge into the dam is also a baptism, the three brothers are a sort of trinity, and towards the end, Garner one evening attends a gospel choir performance at Fitzroy’s Evelyn Hotel, and imagines the whole crowd marching to the side of the dam and raising the children back to life. It is on the one hand a moment so superfluous — the whole book is perched at the side of the dam, trying to raise the children to life, we never really leave it — and such a concentration of pointless hipster silliness, yah yah we’re doing choirs again, ten-pin bowling in original shoes next, as to summon the full inadequacy of post-religious life. But it serves another role, for it gives a clue to the misdirection that gives the book its force.
This House of Grief disturbs because, at one level, it take sides with a nihilism inherent in the act of plunging your kids into a dam, whether you mean to survive or not. There is an argument in This House of Grief that life is not worth living — certainly not for those who survive such an event, but also for anyone in a world where such things are possible. Subtly but steadily, in its depiction of life not only after the event, but before it, the book depicts a type of underworld we are all in. The people round the Farquharsons are certainly in it.
This is slowly dying rural Victoria, much of its identity and independence gone, a place of low-paid and partial work — which, in Farquharson’s case involved window-cleaning at Lorne, the big money to be made on weekends, when he might have ‘mingled’ with the holidaying QCs and judges now deciding his fate. Everyone seems tranquilised and affectless in this depiction, sleepwalking through life — most especially in the aftermath of the event, when no-one can get their shit together, it seems, to dial 000, stay on the scene, and try and dive down. But everyone in the city seems to be affected with an equal futility, from Garner’s old lawyer friends, who have paid out a life in court cases, around one city block of one city, once, and are now slowly going, to Farquharson’s barrister, who appears initially valiant, in the end simply foolish, and ineffectual. This is not a world where evil is visible as shining purpose, nor even where revenge is uppermost. It is simply giving up, and doing it on others’ behalf as well.
No calumny heaped on Farquharson heals the rift he makes in the world — that kids can be there and gone in an afternoon, and two weeks later, you’re having a desultory phone conversation with the mother of the children you killed, about how you’re feeling, and she’s responding. It is the very life force, the willingness to live on, that seems to be malign in this circumstance. Quite possibly he was neither fully guilty — in the sense of a man killing his children for the insurance is guilty — or innocent, but in some parallel state, where the Imaginary had taken over, some mix of revenge, and an end to unequal struggle, and a desire for the indifferent depths of opaque water.
To conclude that would not be to absolve from punishment, or for the need for him to be separated from us, most likely indefinitely, for the permanent separation he had caused. Prison, in such cases, is as much about propriety as anything — it would simply be intolerable to have this man walking amongst us. But that does not mean we cannot look beyond simple tales of good and evil, arising with that new-fangled thing, monotheism, and adjudging each act as as capable of assignment as a sheaves of wheat being marked in a ledger as they’re deposited at the temple door. The court rises from the wet earth and clay. This house may be about grief, but the book, going down deep, is about something else, about despair, and far from being a counsel against.