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Review: This House Of Grief – Helen Garner

on October 17, 2014

This House Of GriefThis House Of Grief
Helen Garner
Text Publishing
2014, 300p
Purchased personal copy

On Father’s Day in 2005, Robert Farquharson was returning his three sons Jai, Tyler and Bailey to his estranged wife Cindy in Winchelsea in Victoria’s south-west. On the way, the car veered off the road, through a fence into a paddock and then into a dam that dropped straight down to a 7m depth. Although Farquharson managed to free himself and make it out of the dam, the three boys drowned.

The shocking case divided people. How on Earth could it possibly be deliberate? people wondered. That someone would do such a thing to three innocent children. But on the other hand, how does such an accident happen? What are the odds that Farquharson would, as he claimed, have a coughing fit on that precise bit of road, lose consciousness, veer across the lane avoiding any potential oncoming traffic, through the fence and into the dam? Why did he not attempt to free the boys? Why, when the first car came upon him on the road, did he demand to be taken from the scene straight to Cindy? The case was handed over to Homicide and Farquharson was charged and committed to stand trial. He was then found guilty – twice, by two separate juries after the first trial was ordered a mistrial.

Australian author Helen Garner became interested in the case and that interest turned into something of an obsession. She was present through both court cases, listening to evidence presented, hearing the grief of the children’s mother Cindy Gambino and her family, seeing the stoic front presented by Farquharson’s sisters, his support throughout both court cases. In this novel, Garner describes the happenings, presents the facts as they appeared in court…and ultimately, leaves it up to the reader to decide.

Despite having lived in Victoria for 8 years, there are many areas I am unfamiliar with. However the one area I am very familiar with is the road on which this terrible tragedy occurred. My husband was born in Colac, just 30 minutes past Winchelsea and his family still live there. We live closer to Melbourne and it’s a road we have traveled many, many times. I’ve seen those 3 crosses beside the road, near the dam probably a hundred times or more and every time I see them, I think of those 3 boys and how horrible what they went through must have been. I’ve always had my own personal opinion but when my husband mentioned he’d bought this book when I was away on holidays, I immediately wanted to read it because I wanted to know more about the actual happenings. I had kept up with both trials and the verdicts but wading through the Herald Sun is a bit different to reading a book dedicated to the story.

From the beginning, Farquharson maintained that he was a victim of cough syncope, a condition so rare that few physicians have actually witnessed it. It seems to be a bit of an enigma wrapped in a riddle, where someone coughs so badly that it cuts off the air supply to their brain causing a brief loss of consciousness. In the beginning and for the first trial, Farquharson’s estranged wife Cindy Gambino supported him, choosing to believe that this was an accident, not something he had done on purpose to hurt her for ending their marriage, for disrupting his family life. Cindy remained in the home with the three boys, keeping their “good car”, a 3yo Commodore whereas Farquharson was forced to move back in with his father and received the “shit” car, a VN Commodore probably some 15 years old. There were suggestions that Farquharson harboured a resentment towards Gambino for ending the relationship and also becoming close to another man and that in the ultimate revenge on her, he would take from her what mattered to her the most – their 3 children. And yet although not presented as a terribly competent father, Farquharson was acknowledged to be a loving one, who had actually improved in his relationship and competence with the 3 boys since the separation. It made it all the more difficult to attempt to decipher what must’ve happened that night on that stretch of highway.

Garner spends day after day in the court room, getting bogged down in details so boring that not only does she catch the jury struggling to stay awake but she documents her own struggle too as the lawyer for the defense harps on and on about yellow paint sprayed where the tyres of Farquharson’s car are believed to have left evidence of its path. It goes for days, a tactic by the defense to discredit the prosecution’s witness and confuse the jury until they don’t know what on earth is going on anymore. Garner describes a sort of Pavlovian response afterwards, whenever yellow paint came up everyone would almost immediately collectively groan and slump sideways, sure that they were in for days more analysis and discourse. But for every time there’s a witness that is called to give detail so involved barely anyone can follow it, there’s also someone who reminds them of why they are there – the tragic loss of 3 young boys and what it has done to the people around them, and that includes Farquharson.

Detailed also is the fight or flight response. Many people’s reactions, mine included, centered around shock and horror that he left those children to die whilst saving himself. Is that what we are programmed to do, as human beings? To save ourselves first? Can you be sure that you wouldn’t, in the same situation, do the same as Farquharson, if indeed it was the accident he claims? I like to think that I would do my best to free my kids, but let’s face it, they’re 6 and 3 and can’t swim. The dam is 7 meters deep and I can’t really swim properly myself. The most likely scenario for me, is that we all drown because getting all 3 of us out of a rapidly sinking car in pitch black water is unlikely. Would it be better to be with them? I don’t like to think on this too much because it involves thinking of outcomes I just can’t bear to, but I like to think I would never leave the scene. That I would stay there and find people who might be able to help me, if somehow I did made it out of the dam. I would never drive away – how much time was wasted during Farquharson’s insistence on the trip to Gambino’s Winchelsea home and then back again? Even Gambino’s new partner stripped off and dived into the dam over and over again, trying to find the car with the kids inside, while Farquharson stood on the road side, smoking a cigarette. And after he was taken to hospital, Farquharson was more concerned about what would happen to him now. He didn’t even ask about his children. Jai was 10, perhaps old enough, had he been able to get out of the car, and strong enough to make it to the surface and to safety. Tyler was 7 and Bailey just 2. It reminded me of a woman who lived down the road from my parents, who was at the beach with 2 of her daughters and the child of a friend. One of the children, not her daughter got into difficulty and not wanting to leave her youngest child, who was just 2, on the beach alone, she took her into the water with her in an attempt to rescue the other child. All 3 of them drowned. In some cases, no matter which option you choose, the outcome will always be tragic.

Regardless of whether Farquharson did have a coughing fit or not, this is the reality: the outcome is tragic. Those boys have had their lives cut short in the most horrible of ways. Their mother is a medicated mess of grief and heartache and whether or not her steadfast belief in Farquharson in the early days is all that allowed her to cling to her sanity or not, the reality is she will live with their loss for the rest of her life. And so will Farquharson. Indeed, Garner admits to feeling pity for him at times, he truly does make for a pathetic creature as he attempts to convince the court that he was just as his defense is trying to present him – a loving father, devastated over the breakdown of his marriage but not angry. The victim of a terrible accident that took his children away from him. And at times reading this book, it was hard not to feel pity for him as well. And yet, just because he seems to have loved his children, doesn’t take away from the fact that he could’ve done something awful to them. People harm the ones they love all the time. Garner presents each side here without really displaying a bias and does a brilliant job and I think that most people will go into this book having already made up their mind on his guilt or innocence. I know I did.

He has been twice found guilty and is now serving a life sentence, 33 years without parole.


Book #211 of 2014


This House Of Grief is the 78th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014



4 responses to “Review: This House Of Grief – Helen Garner

  1. Kate W says:

    This is my book group pick for this month – hoping it will generate lots of discussion.

  2. Deborah says:

    I don’t usually like non-fiction because it leaves little to the imagination; but this, not being sure, would drive me batty! Great review and thanks for sharing.

  3. Peter Hayes says:

    That’s an interesting review. David Marr implies in his (the monthly) review of the book that HG comes to a conclusion at the end about what really happened, but that he won’t spoil it for anyone. I’d read the book already and thought, “Did she? I don’t remember that.” It looks as though you “missed” it too!

  4. Ooh, this one is on my TBR pile.

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