Helen Garner, renowned Australian author known for her honest and rich descriptive novels and non-fiction writing, became engrossed, as did many of us, with the murder trial of Robert Farquarson. Farquarson was accused, and found guilty in Victoria's Supreme Court, of the murder of his three young boys on the evening of Father’s Day in 2005.
Garner takes us into the court room, providing not just details of the court procedures, but also eloquently outlining her own reactions. Her fears, her concerns, her shock and disbelief are articulated clearly so that they enable the reader to enter into the mental space of wondering about the guilt of this father. Despite this, the book is written in such a way as to lead the reader to have their own thoughts and questions. At times it seems that the incident leading to the death of the boys was a very sad accident, a horror event that we would hope we never find ourselves involved in: Farquarson as the loving father who had an unfortunately timed coughing attack. At other times we are left with a clear view that the father did indeed set out to kill his children: Farquarson as the ex-husband vindictively seeking revenge on the mother of their three boys.
As a reader you can feel the anger building as you read page after page, rather compulsively. Despite these clear possibilities of innocence or guilt, Garner takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride when just as you feel that you know what happened some further information is added to the situation that takes you back to wondering again. Perhaps it was a coughing attack, perhaps the road was at an angle that losing control at the top of the hill would lead to entering the dam, perhaps he was just in so much shock as he left the dam…
Cleverly, Garner, in her research for the book, connects with the parents of Farquarson’s ex-wife. She notices their responses to the waxing and waning of the trial events. She engages them briefly in conversations, checking in with them about how they are going, how they are coping day after day of turning up to Court and hearing details no grandparents, or no one for that matter, would want to hear. She notes some of the comments they make, comments that don’t always make sense at the time but that she returns to later on when they do indeed seem to make more sense.
This was a book I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read. I had read some interviews with Garner about the experience of being fully immersed in the case for its trial and appeals. I wondered how this must have affected her and how she was able to sit through the hearings. This curiosity is ultimately what led me to read the book. I wanted to hear from her. I wanted to give value to the effort she had gone to in attempting to discover what had happened to these little boys. I wanted to understand what the possibilities were. I probably hoped that there would be some explanation that would tell us that there was no way this man had killed his children, that people just don’t do that. At the end of the book I was no clearer about understanding that but I was in certainly in awe of the work of the criminal justice system, including the police and jurors, and authors like Garner who work to try to understand, who give voice to all those involved, and ultimately live the decisions made as they place trust in the process.