Sometime in the mid 90s, when I was around 20, there was an accident in Hobart. A woman was driving her mother and her two small children in Hobart. She had an epileptic fit at the wheel and drove into the docks. Two young men, around my age, dived into the greasy water after them.
The story was that, when they reached the car, the two women in the front seats of the sinking car urged them to save the children. The young men managed to get the kids out and swim them to safety, the car sank and the driver and her mother were drowned.
I knew people who knew those two young men - it was Hobart and we were about the same age, so this was inevitable. I heard that the young men were cynical about the media or the public calling them heroes. They had saved the children, but they hadn't saved the women. Perhaps they felt they had, at least in part, failed, or perhaps they were angry that more people hadn't come to their aid. I remember hearing that the women had wound down the windows to let the young men get the children, which is what caused the car to sink. But what else could they have done?
This memory played through my mind constantly as I read This House of Grief by Helen Garner, the retelling of the Robert Farquharson trial. On Father's Day in 2005 he drove into a dam with his three boys in the car, claiming later to have passed out during a coughing fit. His very strange behaviour after the car goes into the dam (he freed himself, flagged down a car and insisted on being driven to his ex-wife's house) is bewildering. But Garner wonders aloud often in the book if it is a myth that parents will always put the lives of their children before their own. Are our survival instincts more selfish than that? You can see why the other story played on my mind.
The book is easy to read, large font, wide margins and Garner's effortless, addictive prose. And the book is difficult to read. More than once I sat breathing, the book closed on my lap. The catharsis when it comes is swift and devastating. It took me three days to read the novel and for the whole time between reading, when I was parenting and shopping and preparing food for friends, when I was sitting in bed with my husband and three kids on Father's Day which was the middle of these three days, I carried a cold, grey dread. Pictures of my own three children, not so very dissimilar in age to the three boys, kept flickering in my head. It was with relief that finally, in the last two pages, I sobbed.
In some ways this is the slightest of Garner's extended non-fiction. She purposely avoids the trap of becoming enmeshed in 'a side', as happened in both The First Stone and Joe Cinque's Consolation where she ended up with a great deal of access to one version of events and shut out of another. Garner seems less intimately involved, more able to detach herself. She carries the weight of the case, but is unburdened by the sense of responsibility to the 'truth' that dogged her in the aforementioned earlier works. In fact there are moments of palpable relief when she reminds herself that it is not up to her to decide if he's guilty or innocent. But she still brings herself in to the story. She toys with possible versions of events - she wonders at one stage, for example, if the boys were fighting, relaying her own anecdote of the sort of blind momentary rage that clouds us when we're actively parenting (or, in her case, grandparenting). She seems to be the only one who allows that Farquharson could have both loved his boys and killed them. The possibility that it was Tyler, the middle child, and not the eldest, Jai, that unbuckled the infant, Bailey, is a shadow that flickers through the last section of the book, barely attended to, but clearly shocking to both Garner and myself. She stays on the surface of the material, not allowing herself to get dragged down into it. This is clearly self-protective, if not also deliberately protective of those more intimately involved in the case than she.
Sometimes Martin will come across me in tears over an article in the online news, usually over the death of a child. Don't read it, he'll say. He says, I never read that stuff. I don't know why I do, except, as Garner points out at the end of This House of Grief, these small dead children, they belong to all of us.