Helen Garner saw it on the TV news. Night. Low Foliage. Water, misty and black. Blurred lights, a chopper. Men in high-vis and helmets. Something very bad here. Something frightful.
It was truly very bad. A man had driven his car into a dam. He escaped from the car but his three small sons drowned. The man was charged with their murder and over the following eight years Garner attended the man’s exhaustive legal trials. She exhausted herself in the process of moral exploration of territory that is indeed, ‘dark, misty, black and blurred.’ Reading Garner’s ‘This House of Grief’ can exhaust a reader in turn.
Three hundred pages of scrupulous enquiry end with the author reflecting: ‘When I let myself think of Jai, Tyler and Bailey lying in their quiet cemetery…I imagine the possessive rage of their families: You never knew them. You never even saw them. How dare you talk about your “grief?”
But no other word will do. Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken. The children’s fate is our legitimate concern. They are ours to mourn. They belong to all of us now.’
Garner takes the deaths of the three children personally as if she were herself involved. She seeks to know whether they died by grievous mischance or by human intent. She needs to understand. She begs of fate, of the universe, ‘Oh Lord, let this be an accident.’ For us her readers – we who elect to follow her into this frightful something – Helen Garner attends the hearings as our emissary to that house of grief. We too need to know, we too seek to understand; the three lost boys are ‘our’ lost children.
Garner quotes three epigrams, each a succinct cry from a previous emissary, each a pair of hands flung upward in despair over the futility of the quest to comprehend.
He can’t possibly have done it. But there’s no other explanation.
There is no explanation of the death of children that is acceptable.
…life is lived on two levels: one in our awareness and the other only inferable…from inexplicable behavior.
On what account are Garner’s thoughts and reactions, naked here on page after page, a matter for a reader’s interest or a reviewer’s remark? What access has the reader to her deeps, her angst? Garner, the person on the page, our emissary, attends a day of ravaging evidence; afterwards she makes her way, blindly, solitary, to a bar for a vodka. On other occasions she resorts to magical thinking: If only Farquharson could be found not guilty, then the boys would not be dead…Garner pictures them in their domestic vitality, playing footy, watching cartoons, running with arms open for a cuddle. The only way I could bear it was to picture the boys as water creatures: three silvery naked little sprites,…who slithered through a crack and …sped away together.
Then, haunted by the chill of reality, she races homeward in her mind, to haul my grandsons …from their Lego and their light sabres, to squeeze them …until they squirmed. Young boys! How can such wild vital creatures die? How can this hilarious sweetness …be snuffed out?
And again, this longer account of the observer’s migratory flight of feeling: When I got home I sat on the back verandah mumbling to myself, sick at heart. My third grandchild came wandering around the house. He approached me without speaking, turned his back, and stood waiting to be picked up. I lifted him onto my lap. He was only a few months younger than Bailey Farquharson had been when he drowned. For a while the little boy sat on my knee. He relaxed his spine against my chest. Together we listened to the clatter of the high palm fronds, the wail of a distant siren. He glanced up sharply when a flight of lorikeets swerved chattering across the garden. Then he spread his right hand like fan, inserted a delicate thumb into his mouth, and tucked his head under my chin.
And yet only two hours later when he and his four-year-old brother disobeyed me… and went crashing and yelling down the hall to the kitchen like maniacs, rage blinded me. I ran after them, grabbed the nearest arm, and yanked its owner round in a curve. Before I could land a blow I got a grip on myself. The boys stood frozen in attitudes of flight. Nobody spoke. In a cold sweat I leaned against the cupboard door and took some trembling breaths.
Here Garner gives us her brittleness, her sense of near disintegration, her proximity in extremis to harming loved ones in her care; and subtly too, the boys’ “attitudes of frozen flight” recall the postures of failed flight of the boys in the drowned car.
There is a reticence, a holding back at certain points, a refusal to comment that shouts, no, screams, in unexpressed horror. Thus: The men from Major Collision looked into the car before they opened it to drain the water. Ten-year-old Jai was lying face down across the front seats with his head towards the driver’s door…
Seven-year-old Tyler lay on his right side behind the driver’s seat. His head was near the door and his legs were between the two front seats. Two-year-old Bailey was lying across the top of the baby seat, facing rearwards and still tangled in his safety harness.
It is not until the following page that Garner reveals the killer datum: all three seatbelts were unbuckled. It is this crushing fact that tells us that a child – or two children – struggled. It is this, delayed, that a writer striving for dramatic effect might have juxtaposed earlier and quite unbearably with those postures. As it is, the bodies lie diagonally, piercing my composure. I too need recourse to slithering fishes or to vodka or to clutching hard my own brood of near ten-year-old grandboys.
Writing to a friend some weeks following release of the book – a year or more I guess after the trial and the appeal and the retrial and the application to the High Court – after all had ended, Helen Garner said: “This is what I’ve learned from the last seven or eight years: ‘We are small. We are weak. We are mortal’… but I think I knew that already.”