Helen Garner’s desire to identify and dissect the worst of human nature has always provoked passionate debate and, often, criticism. This same urge drives her new book, This House of Grief, in which Garner examines the trial of Robert Farquharson and seeks to understand the man who drove his three sons into a dam, drowning them.

In her opening night address at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Thursday evening, Garner told interviewer Ramona Koval she was surprised by the angry responses she received when she announced she wanted to cover the Farquharson case. She speculated this apprehension derived from the belief she was ‘soft on men’. But Garner is soft on no one; it is a hallmark of her fiction and nonfiction that she both embraces and condemns the best and worst of us, without exception or bias.

Koval asked whether this general sense of apprehension was justified, whether Garner found herself sympathising with Farquharson. ‘I was not attempting to arouse sympathy,’ said Garner, ‘but to express my own empathy for him. It was an unpopular view to think that he might not be guilty, and that interested me greatly.’

9781922079206_large_coverThis empathy is the crux of Garner’s unflinching approach to journalistic investigation; and it is also partly why she is so regularly accused of being callous or unfeeling in her nonfiction. She excavates the worst parts of us all, and refuses to allow us to hide them away in dark corners. Such bottomless empathy arouses resentment. We do not want to be made to identify with those who actions we condemn (Farquharson in This House of Grief; Joe Cinque’s murderous girlfriend in Joe Cinque’s Consolation; the narrator of The Spare Room, who resents and rages against the ignorance of her dying friend). Garner depicts a humanity that is universal, and universally flawed. She is necessarily ruthless and unflinching in doing so – two words frequently used to describe her and her writing. But she is also calm and careful, willing us all to be better by seeking the nuances in humanity’s worst transgressions. Garner thoughtfully described the pull the Farquharson case exerted on her, and the doubts and uncertainties it evoked. ‘The whole book is in a sense quivering on some edge. It might look as those I did that for effect, but that was how it was.’

Garner frequently focuses on deviations from the expected course, rather than on cut-and-dried legal processes. ‘Courts are supposed to be places of reason,’ she said. ‘They’re not supposed to be places of emotion, but they really are.’ She spoke with evident relish of moments when the courtroom becomes an ‘intimate space’, raw humanity leaking through the conventions. ‘You can see when someone breaks into a sweat. You can see when someone expresses nerves by clenching and unclenching their buttocks.’ Such evidence of humanity intrigues Garner, and her writing invites readers to engage in the extremes of empathy she herself practices.

Despite a relative lack of access to the key players in the case, Garner felt connected with them. In this, she said she was guided primarily by instinct, ‘old, shit-kicking, journalistic instinct. You look at what people are doing and it seems to be radiating meaning.’ She was willing to be swayed by Farquharson and his legal team’s defence, to be persuaded of his innocence. She admitted that at times, ‘I longed for him not be guilty, because it’s just unbearable to believe that a man would do such a thing’. Ultimately, Garner was convinced of his guilt, as was the court, and This House of Grief dwells somewhere in the space where these personal and legal verdicts coincide.

Garner is clearly obsessed by the legal system, in both its symbolic and literal manifestations. She said she is drawn to the courtroom as a place where, ‘you can contemplate the darkest points of human behaviour in a way that’s formalised’. It is crucial, she said, that in these matters there is ‘some sort of spirit of the law’. Just as the old-fashioned courtroom procedures and judges in their wigs and gowns represent something bigger than themselves, Robert Farquharson, too, embodies something more complex than solely himself and his crime. He symbolises the worst manifestation of human nature, the devil whose existence we wish to deny. With typically resolute ferocity, Garner refuses to allow Farquharson’s monstrousness to eclipse his wretched humanity.