Subtitled “A true story of death, grief, and the law”, Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner is not just the story of trial and justice but a meditation on how to tell the story of a kind of humanity you cannot fathom. Coming into the separate trials of Joe’s girlfriend Anu Singh and her friend Madhavi Rao after the death of Joe one weekend in 1997, Garner traces the event of that weekend as told in the court, and follows the repercussions years down the track for the girls, for the families, and for Garner herself.
Joe Cinque died on 26 October 1997 in the home he shared with his girlfriend in Canberra. After lacing his coffee with Rohypnol over two nights, Anu gave him a lethal dose of heroin. It was not her first attempt; it took several days for him to die. Friends and acquaintances were told of her plan apparently, including Madhavi, and none stopped it. Rather brutally, we open with the Triple Zero call Anu eventually made on the Sunday of that weekend, her hesitancy and anxiety immediately drawing a vivid image of her temperament and character.
Garner joins the story itself in the middle of Anu’s second trial, the story of the crime itself told as she discovers it herself. The chronology therefore is one belonging to Garner and her investigations, rather than the clear timeline of the crime and trial. This is appropriate because the story is not just about Joe, Anu and Madhavi but how Garner and others, come to fathom such a waste of a beautiful young life; the sense that you have to find to process the grief.
Having lived in Canberra for some years, I know the street they lived on, the feeling of the crisp autumn mornings, the blindingly blue skies, the atmosphere around the ANU balls. It made the book both claustrophobic and compulsive.
It is not just my familiarity with the setting that made this book so intimate; Garner’s portrait of Joe is sensitive and striking. While imperfect, of course, he is drawn as a thoughtful young man, loyal and smart. When I wasn’t reading the book, I just couldn’t stop thinking about him. What a life to lose; what incomprehensible grief his parents and friends must be suffering. He was a good person. Feeling so much for the victim made the book’s intimacy almost suffocating for me.
And as for Anu and Madhavi? They are unsettling; unfathomable.
“She seemed to lack a language deep enough for the trouble she was in, a language fit for despair. With dread I recognised her. She was the figure of what a woman most fears in herself – the damaged infant, vain, frantic, destructive, out of control.”
It is terrifying how ego, poor self worth and insecurity can cause a someone to lash out so far as to killing another. And as for the onlookers? We all like to think that we will be different; we will step in. This sense of justice condemns Madhavi; but doubt about it creates discomfort around her. I simply cannot understand either of their actions.
But this is not about good Joe and the bad girls. I could understand Anu’s parents, for example, and their raging, strangled kind of grief as a motivator. The idol that Joe’s parents build around him is also understandable. This is no pitched battle against evil but, as Garner explains to Anu’s father:
“‘What I want to do,’ I said, surprising myself, for until that moment I had not managed to articulate it, even in my thoughts, ‘is to enlarge my imagination to the point where it can encompass truths as widely separated as your version of events at the Cinques’.'”
Garner manages the details of the death as well as the ongoing repercussions with a practical grace; the knowledge that this search for understanding is just a way to manage suffering.
“How soiled the stories were, how lacking in the flow of meaning, or even the high sheen of ‘wickedness’. They oozed pathos and despair, a clumsy, sordid hopelessness. I couldn’t understand how a summer afternoon could smell so grassy and good, so ordinary; how the world outside the court could continue its benevolent progress. Invisible magpies warbled in the plane trees. Softly, gently, never running out of melodic ideas, they perched among the leaves and spun out their endless tales.”
Life goes on. The sun still shines in Canberra. While Joe will always be 26, his brother grows older. New generations of students move to the town to go to ANU; new relationships with thrive and die. The magpies still swoop every spring. Anu and Madhavi have careers, weddings, children, grandchildren ahead of them. This is the keenly felt tragedy of this story. Garner is an intelligent, sensitive writer, and the claustrophobia of this book is worth it for the keenly-realised humanity. It is an exploration of tragedy.