This House of Grief by Helen Garner

Why would you read a made up whodunit when Garner is writing these reflections on real cases? In her ruminations on, and observations of, human nature, she has the appropriate balance and sympathy, as well as empathy. It feels like she is calling it as it is, which is no easy task. It means to be involved, if only as observer, whilst being detached enough to admit and be inclusive of one’s feelings, without their corrupting the job.

You might read this because it’s a ripping good yarn, if a tragic one. Or because of the way it captures the small town Australia in which it is set, and the interactions between the people of that setting and the urban, sophisticated stage of the law with all its trappings.

On a more abstract level, an important theme is the nature of memory. The person accused of the murder of his three young boys comes out looking bad at a variety of levels. One is his entirely unconvincing attempts (if they are that) to explain what happened. Another, connected, is the way he behaved subsequent to having saved himself, while his children died. His behaviour convicted him.

Intellectually it is impossible to read his descriptions of what happened when he went into the dam and believe in him. But it brought to my mind a car crash I was in long ago. The car rolled several times and stopped. My real memory of what happened, and subsequently the memory of my memory was that the car stopped upside down. I ‘know’ that couldn’t have happened. How does one even get out of a seatbelt hanging upside down in a car? Certainly one wouldn’t forget it. And yet, even though I know it, the memory remains. Many years later, I told another passenger on that ill-fated trip about this memory and she immediately said, yes, this was exactly the same experience for her.

In our case, there was no crime, we were never interrogated. But if we had been, we would have sounded like complete dicks, unable to properly explain what had happened, stubbornly saying well, we were upside down, even though we weren’t. We would have been shown the car, stationary the right way up and been sternly asked, does this look upside down? And how did you get out if you were upside down? And so on and so forth.

The unreliable nature of memory, combined with how different people respond in a crisis leaves me with some unease as to the chap’s guilt. But then the bridge player comes to the fore. What happened is odds confounding unless it were deliberate.

Helen Garner has made a part of her long career writing these reflections on strange cases that attract her eye. Next for me is Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which I’m determined to read before watching the film.


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