Helen Garner: This House of Grief

September 20, 2016

Years ago an agent tried to convince me to write to write a true-crime book about German cannibals. She felt she could get me a deal. I declined. I didn’t want to dip my life in that particular pot for several years.

Still, I admire those who do. In a profile piece yesterday, I was asked which book I would like to have written and why. I chose Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Classic breadth, great detail, so much life as well as death, all gently seething with Capote’s passion for his subject. The book made him as a writer, and simultaneously finished him off, it was so taxing. (Hence why I might like to have written it, to spare Capote, keep him writing longer.)

Kate Atkinson suggests Helen Garner’s House of Grief is like In Cold Blood. Maybe, but I first thought to link it more to Blake Morrison’s As If, his personal take on the trials of the kids who killed Jamie Bulger; or maybe Gitta Sereny’s Cries Unheard, about the child killer Mary Bell.

It’s different to those, though. Yes, Helen Garner filters her emotional responses into the story, as she watches the trials and appeals of a man accused of driving his three sons to death by drowning. She is in her sixties, a mother, a grandmother. The deaths and the lives they touch make a heart-rending story. But Garner does not milk it. She does not dramatize the young lives lost, or set out on her own investigative trail. The book is dedicated “to the Victorian Supreme Court: ‘this treasury of pain, this house of power and grief'” (referring to the court in Melbourne, Australia). That’s what she has given us: the full power of a trial, the court as a ‘house of grief’, filled with lawyers and journalists and families and accused and judges and experts and witnesses. Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action is superb at following one lawyer through a case, but I know no other book with so broad and sympathetic a focus on the whole panorama of a trial.

Fresh from writing Client Earth, my own recent book on lawyers, I was especially struck by these lines: ‘I was overwhelmed by a sense that vast quantities of the evidence in this case were beside the point. Mighty barrages of fanatical detail had gone rushing and chattering past like a river after heavy rain.’

Mighty writing, and it’s a strong move, to sit with your observations and come out with such a personal statement. That’s how I have come to see these court cases too: filled, stuffed with material, which top lawyers shift aside as they bring focus to the points that really matter.

I admire that Helen Garner chose the subject, sat through the trials, and then worked and worked away at her material for years. It’s a taxing job, and helps us see our world more clearly, as we humans struggle to contain the sorrows that we cause.

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