For the Sumerians, from the place between the rivers, the afterlife wasn’t much to look forward to. Paradise, the upper room, had not yet been invented, the underworld not yet differentiated. The place was a grim realm of greyishness where the dead spirit wandered, a conception that matched the circumstances of their disposal. The recently deceased would have their bones picked clean by the birds, after which their bones would be deposited beneath the floor of the house, the skull removed and sat in the “lap”. Once a year, they would be removed for an ancestral banquet joining the living and the dead across the great divide. Babies and toddlers were the only ones permitted to go to the underworld intact, curled up, sleeping. Thus had the dead been buried for thousands of years, from the first cities, 10 millennia years old, such as Catal Huyuk, to the beginning of the great religions. The practice was most likely a continuation of early homo sapiens practice, in which the bones of the dead were tramped down in caves.
The early civilisations added the notion of wandering, of a grey realm, a feature arising from the river deltas where the first cities had arisen. Their origin stories are of people formed from silt, from marshes, solidity arising. Such marshy deltas made high-yield agriculture, and thus cities and writing, possible — they are the waters God looks upon the face of in the beginning of Genesis. What could be more obvious than that to the waters we would return? Was it really seen as so bad, this endless undifferentiated afterlife? Or did the horror of it develop later, prompting the invention of a cartoon paradise of milk and honey? Did that grey world offer a sort of nirvana, a suspension of being, in the suspension of earth in water? Bodies of water, as a means of suicide, appear to offer that consolation, of doing no violence to one’s own intact body, but simply merging back with the great world, curling up in it.
When Robert Farquharson ploughed off the road on the night of Father’s Day 2004 and put his car in a dam, turning off the lights and engine as it went to the bottom of the deep body of water (it was made by filling the hole from which the stone for the local road had been quarried), was that what he was seeking out? So many suicides in Australia, a place of long drives and iron-hard trees lining the roads, are simply a turn of the steering wheel, an act of whim and, fuck it, far easier than putting the farm gun in your mouth. Reading the opening chapter of Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, in which the initial event and the meticulous process of recovering the car are detailed, the brown nothingness of the water and its surprising depth terrifyingly recreated, it is hard not to conclude that, consciously or otherwise, Farquharson was seeking out that peace, a death that was not-death, a part of the world that was without resistance, difference, ex-wives, new boyfriends, crap cars, shit jobs, poor health, declining towns, disappointment and failure. Quite possibly, he was also trying to drown them and survive himself, as revenge against his ex-wife for leaving him and doing well without him, but the two ideas are not exclusive.
From without, and doubtless from within, the event has such a quality of nightmare about it that any notion of a clear plan of action doesn’t explain anything. Garner’s account of the killings, the two court cases in which Farquharson was twice convicted and the years in between, will be taken as part of a familiar true-crime genre, coming face to face with evil, albeit with the high-end, metatwist in which the author questions self about motives, personal prejudices and the ability of such a genre to actually get at the truth.
“Nothing can undo the event at the heart of the book, and on the surface, that is one thing that the book — utterly compelling, arresting in a way that takes it far beyond the guilty, charged voyeurism of most true crime reading — is dealing with.”
But if that were all that were going on here, it wouldn’t hold our interest right to the end. The crime was horrifying, the explanation Farquharson gave for it pretty unconvincing — a coughing fit that caused him to lose control at the exact moment necessary to plunge into the dam — and there was some real Law and Order stuff along the way, with a friend of Farquharson’s wearing a wire to get him to admit on tape to having had conversations about killing his kids. But the retrial provided no great reversal, or courtroom moment — the verdict was confirmed, and by the time it had all ended nearly a decade later, the mother of the children had remarried and started a new family, and Farquharson was in chokey for 35 years. For the mother and her family, life drifted into a middle area, expressed by the mother’s parents — whom Garner visits (taking a detour, on a whim, as she’s travelling down a road) having befriended them through the trial — as simple circumscription. They don’t do much gardening because the kids helped and it’s too sad, they don’t do this or that, because.
In the end, there are no answers, and what answers could there be? What if tomorrow, Farquharson confessed it all from his cell? Or was operated on for a brain tumour and discovered to have undiagnosed propensity to seizure and small blackout? What if an angel appeared in the skies and told us that the record of his soul told us he was innocent? Nothing can undo the event at the heart of the book, and on the surface, that is one thing that the book — utterly compelling, arresting in a way that takes it far beyond the guilty, charged voyeurism of most true crime reading — is dealing with. In a manner that Garner has done in Cosmo Cosmolino and The Spare Room, a central dilemma is being staged — that of boomers whose transition to adulthood exactly matched the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, and who have come out the other side of it with a failed humanism and an unassuaged search for Meaning. Ostensibly, it is about evil, what it might be, whether Farquharson was possessed of it.
Through the whole story, centred around the first trial and the court itself — the house of grief — Garner holds onto a belief in the possibility of Farquharson’s innocence long after most of the people around her, which functions as the book’s drag line. Every moment is shot through with redemption and the hope for it and much of the action has more in common with Christian mediaeval allegory than anything resembling drama. Garner and a precocious 16-year-old daughter of a friend accompanying her take coffee at the van outside the court, and during this communion the spirits come — lawyers mainly, people she knew in Carlton when they were ratbags, now respectable, prospering or declining, with the practice, the McMansion and the house in Lorne, or going out backwards, smoking themselves to a heart attack. They offer temptations: insights into the fact that the law is not a place where an accounting of events will happen, not because it is corrupt or imperfect, but it is not that sort of thing at all, that much of what Garner is coming to this trial for is a sort of category error about what’s going on.
Her companion is the affectless millennial voice, deprived or undburdened of a boomer’s transitional desires for depth, depth of any sort, in life, observing that Farquharson seems simply guilty from the start, his defence flimsy and desperate. Farquharson’s sisters drift in and out, not so much convinced of his innocence as simply assuming it because of siding with him. They’re happy with a defence cross-examination that Garner feels achieved little because “our expert said the other guy was wrong”.