What I’m reading: Helen Garner’s This House of Grief

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 cars.

This House Of Grief

It’s a clever beginning. Garner frames her story as an old-fashioned country song – a typical, plaintive she-done-him-wrong song. The story of a good bloke knocked sideways when the woman he loves suddenly ends their relationship. You can see the music video in your head, and bet on how the story ends: continuing heartbreak; recovery and a new beginning; or forgiveness and reconciliation?

If you know the story – and if you’re an adult living in Australia, it’s more than likely you do – you’ll be aware that the ending is not a happy one. On Father’s Day, less than a year after the break-up, the devastated bloke drives his car, the three children inside, into a dam. The boys drown. He escapes.

Garner’s book covers the next seven years: the lives lived around and through a criminal investigation, trial and appeal. I am enjoying her crisp style and incisive voice; her wry observations and her clear-eyed depiction of the antics of court. It’s a fascinating, harrowing journey, with very human foibles (including Garner’s own) on display, and the whole narrative haunted by a sense of disbelief that this ordinary man – this rather dull, pitiful man – could have deliberately killed his children in order to punish his wife.

 

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