Helen Garner’s opening at the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival



I went along to the Melbourne Town Hall to see Helen Garner talking to Romana Koval. it was a buzzy night, lots of people, and I’d booked my ticket using the ‘select seat yourself’ button, instead of the ‘best available.’ This meant I got a ticket in the first row and as I walked to find my seat, someone called out ‘Jenny, Jenny!’ It was a friend from school, who now works with the Minister for the Arts, Heidi Victoria. I went and sat and said hi. The minister was eating a mandarin (her dinner) and we awkwardly shook hands (later I was thinking: she wouldn’t want to keep eating after touching the hand of a stranger. Did I just do something really bad etiquette-wise?) My friend introduced me as a writer, and I quickly said, ‘And a reader.’ I don’t know why. I then confused both of them by saying I’d seen HV at the Premier’s Literary… (mangled the name of it) ‘Oh, at Government House? It was such a hot night!’ ‘Ah, no, the Emerging Writers Manuscript, Unpublished, gurgle, mumble… and the announcement about the Docklands Library…’ Anyway, I went and found my seat. I am the Clouseau of the Melbourne writing scene.


Arnold Zable said a few words, including these doozies about the current political situation and possible changes to higher education:

grossly unfair, unwise and unjust… and the future Helen Garners will be penalised.

—Arnold Zable

He got the biggest applause from the audience. I rattled my jewellery. No, seriously, go Arnold, I love that he wasn’t scared to speak out. With a daughter headed to university next year, the thought of her having a debt of tens of thousands when I got my degree for free is pretty tough. And I expect she will have the capacity to pay it off later; there are some kids for whom this will be an insurmountable barrier and it sucks.


Garner read from her new book This House of Grief. I’ve heard her read before and I think she reads really well.


The chat with Ramona Koval (someone I’ve admired for a long time. Here’s her website.)

Helen said she loves courts, more and more as she gets older. She would love to stay there, if there was a little bed… [audience laughs]

‘She’s soft on men,’ that’s what people have been saying about me for several years, I believe…

Ramona said she imagines it’s too hard to go there: “how do you go there? The children drowning… You could have gone to any trial.” (The suggestion being: why that one? It’s a good question because I think the nature of this case has split readers, or confirmed for some non-readers of Garner, or non-likers, that this type of book is something very distasteful. Lisa Hill is one such reader, you can see her opinion here at her blog ANZLitLovers. Lisa is not a Garner-lover, it’s fair to say, and I get it and respect it. The things that Garner examines, and the way she does it, is not to everyone’s taste.)

Helen Garner: I reckon I could get a book out of any court case, even the most minor traffic infringement. With this particular case her initial horror was followed by curiosity.

She has learned to take notice of what Janet Malcolm calls ‘the first stirring of curiosity.’ She knows to listen to it.

[My note: I think curiosity is one of the most basic of human emotions and something that few of us like to ‘resist’; we like to know almost at any cost, sometime. I’m like that and I get that Garner is like that. Other people are less questioning; can stand to not know. Knowing is also a step towards understanding, and I get a person who seeks to understand, even the most appalling things. I also understand some people just don’t want to go there.]

In between books, Garner said, she thinks she wouldn’t care if she never wrote another book ever again, but then she gets drawn in once more, to another story, or idea.

RK: What was the idea by starting the way you did? To create sympathy?


To understand the point behind this question, it’s important to see how Garner does open the book. First, there are three epigraphs. One a direct quotation from a lawyer walking past the court, one from the Kaddish, and one from Janet Malcolm. The book itself is dedicated to the Victorian Supreme Court: ‘this treasury of pain, this house of power and grief’ (which are the words of Dezső Kosztolányi, a Hungarian writer).

Then, the opening:

Once there was a hard-working bloke who lived in a small Victorian country town with his wife and their three young sons. They battled along on his cleaner’s wage, slowly building themselves a bigger house. One day, out of the blue, his wife told him that she was no longer in love with him. She did not want to go on with the marriage. She asked him to move out. The kids would live with her, she said, and he could see them whenever he liked. She urged him to take anything he wanted from the house. The only thing she asked for, and got, was the newer of their two cards.

The sad husband picked up his pillow and went to live with his widowed father, several streets away. Before long his wife was seen keeping company with the concreter they had hired to pour the slab for the new house. The tradesman was a born-again Christian with several kids and his own broken marriage. Soon the separated wife began to accompany him to his church. Next, the husband spotted the concreter driving around town in the car that he had slaved to buy.

Up to this point you could tell the story as a country-and-western song, a rueful tale of love betrayed, a little bit whiny, a little bit sweet. But ten months later, just after dark on a September evening in 2005, while the discarded husband was driving his sons back to their mother from a Father’s Day outing, his old white Commodore swerved off the highway, barely five minutes from home, and plunged into a dam. He freed himself from the car and swam to the bank. The car sank to the bottom, and all the children drowned.

Back to Ramona’s question. Was this opening written to evoke sympathy? Also, the earlier mention of the ‘soft on men’ bit. There are words in these first few paras that are very carefully selected – hell, all of them are very carefully selected, that’s what a good writer does – but the use of hard-working, out of the blue, sad husband, the car that he had slaved to buy in those opening lines shows to me that Garner is doing something more sophisticated than just creating sympathy, in fact I doubt she’s creating sympathy for the ‘sad husband’ Robert Farquharson at all.

The question about why Garner ‘goes there’ to the hard places; I think some of us do, and some of us don’t. There’s a propensity among certain of us to ‘go there’; a curiosity, a desire to work things out.

But Garner’s answer to Koval’s question about creating sympathy:

Put it this way – it was an unpopular view to think he might not be guilty. And that was an interesting view. People don’t want to know, they didn’t want to dwell

Garner said she really does love being in court, during a trial. Even during the really boring long presentations of technical evidence, and the cross examinations, when the jury looked like falling asleep

But I didn’t fall asleep. I didn’t find it boring. Even the boring stuff is interesting.

RK: The theatre of court, is that the interest?

HG: It’s a very formal space and in courts you can contemplate the darkest forces of human behaviour, but it’s formal. Judges are like high-parental figures, and everything is done according to tradition… Courts are meant to be places of reason, not emotion, but emotion is everywhere. Not just negative or tears, but laughter. The whole court would collapse in laughter, including Farquharson, at a stupid joke. The tension, the relief.

RK: [talking about how Garner would run into various family members at the coffee cart outside the court] It was like a Greek chorus, of Louise* (Garner’s 16-year-old sometime companion at the trial), Farquharson’s family and the mother, Cindy Gambino’s family. They ask the questions the reader will be asking.

HG: [In terms of the action, the drama] It’s all handed to you on a plate, it’s happening there, if you’re alert, right in front of you.

At the first trial, Garner told us, mother Cindy was grieving, a broken, tragic figure (she was supporting her ex’s position that it had been an accident, he’d suffered a coughing fit at the wheel of the car and blacked out.) By the time of the second trial (Gambino had shifted in her belief about her ex, this change in position triggered by him refusing to see her in gaol), she was a fighter, Garner said. And Farquharson’s lawyer ‘really took her on. She’s a really tough woman, mad with grief and rage. There were terrifying cross examinations.’

Garner said she identifies as a journalist, not a novelist. She talked about instinct, and gut feeling. She talked about the way memory works:

We think memory never changes over time but it does… the courts seem to function of the Neanderthal belief that memory is fixed.

RK made a point regarding Farquharson’s behaviour and demeanour on the night, how people remembered Lindy Chamberlain, who didn’t behave as everyone imagined a parent should behave. I don’t have any notes of Garner’s response, but she did say that

the whole book is quivering on an edge – it might seem I did it for effect but that’s how it was… just when I’d think, yeah, he definitely did it, another witness came and made me question again.

There was no one moment that the truth clicked for her, Garner said, and yes, she’d love to be a juror.

Why don’t they call me? I’d be a great juror!



* I have a small suspicion Louise is a bit of a fictional figment. Firstly, she was 16 and on her gap year. I don’t know many 16 year olds who’ve finished Year 12 and are on a gap year. Also, she serves a very literary purpose as sidekick, also questioner and disagreer. Like a mirror at times to Garner’s processing of things. But maybe she’s real. Doesn’t matter, just didn’t feel 100% about her.

5 thoughts on “Helen Garner’s opening at the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival

  1. I love Garner too — even though I don’t always agree with her. She’s fearless, honest and she’s a great writer. Like you, I want to explore/understand unpleasant things, though I understand, too, those who don’t. Anyhow, I’ll try to remember to come back to this post when I’ve read the book, which will hopefully be next month. So much to read …

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