This House of Grief – by Helen Garner, A Review.

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.”

After all had ended it had not ended at all.This House of Grief

Reconsider Phillip

The morning finds Phillip’s bed empty. No-one has discharged him, no-one has removed the intravenous bung from his arm. The plastic bottle of saline hangs from its pole, its tubing droops into air. Phillip’s just gone.


At mid-morning a call comes from the nearby general practice: “One of your patients turned up here with a bandaged arm; would we change his dressing? We found an IV bung. We figured he came from the hospital.”


Two days later a young woman wanders into the hospital. She shows the back of her right hand, swollen and deformed.

“What happened?”

A full-cheeked face, a crooked smile. A palm-upwards gesture from the opposite hand: You know how these things are. Just a swollen hand…

She offers no words.

“When did it happen?”

A shrug.

We won’t have X-ray until Monday. She turns to go, her walk crooked like her smile. A fruity aroma hangs in the air.


On Monday the X-ray shows a fractured metacarpal, classic fracture of the biff.  We ask again: “How did it happen?”

Her shrug, her smile convey confession and self–forgiveness.

She points in the direction of her companion, who volunteers: I made her wild.

She is so young, at least in years. Her face, even younger in its innocence, looks older in damage.

A pang of regret for that damage prompts a candid question. “Do you think your drinking is doing you harm?”

Her companion is a slim young man with a meandering black beard. He replies before she finishes the familiar smiling that she substitutes for words: It’s doing both of us harm!

That face, that beard, I know them: the man’s sobriety and his gaiety confused me. The speaker is Phillip.

Sexual Misconduct

A first grader I know confided in me recently. He said, I’ve got a problem. You know my girlfriend, Tori? She kisses me and she wants me to kiss her. At school!
I didn’t see his problem: Is that bad?
Yes! What if the teachers find out?
What would happen if they did find out?
They would send me to the principal.
The child looked at me as at a simpleton. Because you can’t kiss people at school! It’s against the rules!
Really? I never saw any rule like that? Especially if the girl wants you to kiss her. And if you do.
Exasperated now: Look, if we kiss and other kids know about it, soon the whole school would be kissing…
That’s better than fighting, isn’t it?
A deep breath. He tries a different tack: What if Tori’s parents found out?
What if they did? If your parents wouldn’t mind – why should her parents feel differently?
You don’t understand. Tori’s parents aren’t like mine. They… they live in a great big house…They would go crazy if they knew I kissed Tori.

News from the Nicest Racist Country in the World

My name is Howard Jonathan Goldenberg.
It might just as well be Howard Jonathan Foreign. Or Howard Different.

I write good serious letters, grown up, sensible letters, doctor to doctor letters. From time to time I receive a response addressed as follows:

Dear Dr Goldberg,

Now my name is Goldenberg. We Goldenbergs are fewer than common or garden Goldbergs, distinct from them, superior to them by one syllable.

Less often my correspondent replies:

Dear Dr Rosenberg,

Occasionally I have been

Dear Dr Goldstein,

and on one occasion, I found myself elevated to the Shakespearean catalogue:

Dear Dr Rosenkrantz.

Like all good Australian children I grew up with the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Three syllables: Gold-i-locks. No school child pronounces or reads this differently. It is as simple as Gold-en-berg – three syllables.

In this nice country (which I love) the Smiths have been eclipsed by the Nguyens as the bearers of the commonest name in the telephone directory. Almost everyone in Australia consults a Doctor Nguyen or sits open-mouthed before Dentist Nguyen, or is assisted at the checkout by Schoolgirl Nguyen, or copies the homework of Swot Nguyen; we all know a Nguyen. But how many of us can pronounce the name? How many of can spell it correctly?

In this country (in which my generations have lived happily since the 1840’s) we occupy an entire continent yet we share no border with another language. (There are internal borders of course, unseen, that delineate tribal lands and tongues. We never mispronounce the names of those languages; we do not know them. Blackfellas have learned not to make us settlers uncomfortable.)

The Australian ear, the Australian mind, attuned to English, recognize the present hegemony of that language. We have a monoglot sense of normality. English is natural, familiar, comforting. We Nguyens and Goldenbergs, in all our sweet immigrant innocence, offend that ear, strain that throat, challenge that comfort.

So we come here, we land, we try to lose our foreignness.
We try to fit in. The Chinese girl whose name in Mandarin means Blushing Lotus buries Sao Li under Sally. She senses our discomfort, she knows her own, and she submerges self, cultural memory, pride, her parents’ choice of name, born of their prophetic knowing, expressive of connection, of parents owning their own. Sally gives birth to herself and Sao Li dies.

I have a close relative by marriage whose name is decidedly unenglish and hence rather unaustralian. Further, in the original German the name means “Bad Luck.” Most of the Badluck Clan have changed their name to Goodluck and have prospered here and become proverbial in the landscape. But my relative persists as Harry Badluck. He refuses to change. “It was my father’s name and that’s good enough for me.” In Europe the name was prophetic: it was good enough for Harry’s father to see the Nazis kill many of his family.
Harry Badluck sticks to his patrimony. He is proud of it.

Australia is the nicest racist country in the world. Ask Adam Goodes.
We Australians don’t wish to be racist. We don’t like to think of ourselves that way when we intend the opposite.
We are, unfortunately, linguistically provincial. We cover our confusion, our small discomforts, our unspoken resentments, in insensitivity or laziness or in unkind humour. (Come on Sally! Lighten up! Can’t you take a joke?)

My name is Goldenberg.

41 Kilometres along the Road to Evil

Evil is a strong word. I seldom use it. Today there is no alternative.

Last Monday, I ran in the Boston Marathon. In innocent unknowing, I ran, together with twenty five thousand comrades, 41 kilometres along a joyful road towards an undreamed evil. An evil where an adult would calmly place a bomb within metres of an eight year old child and his family.

The events of that day, both good and evil, shook me, changed me, probably changed us all. Readers of this blog flooded me with kind messages of support and affection – and candidly – overpraise.

The blog is blushing and preparing a response equal to your kindness.
When it comes, expect it to be a marathon read – about one hundred words per kilometre run.

Those readers who donated to the Michael Lisnow Respuite Centre can expect news of your Investment in my Black Chip offering.

After the enormous events of the past week the blog needs to discharge mixed and deep feelings..

Once done, expect a return to the usual flummery.

For now, thank you, thank you all.

Howard Goldenberg