The first time I saw Joe Cinque among his friends and family, the first time I ever heard his voice, was in the living room of his parents’ house in Newcastle, in the winter of 1999. By then, of course, he had already been dead for nearly two years. This is the story of how I got to know him.
Why I read it
This book came into my hands while being passed between two others. Another borrower had just finished reading it and was passing it back to its owner when I expressed an interest in its cover. It was already well-worn: the gold embossing on the title letters was reduced to a thin outline.
I was told: it’s un-put-downable; it’s gripping; it’s horrifying; it’s one of the most memorable books I’ve read in years – and it involves a local kid, grew up in Charlestown.
So I read it.
What it’s about
This is a true story. It’s about the killing of Joe Cinque by his girlfriend in Canberra in 1997. Both of them were young law students at the time. Joe was from an Italian family in Charlestown, near Newcastle, Australia. His girlfriend Anu Singh was beautiful, wealthy, and convinced she was suffering from an incurable muscle-wasting illness that she partially blamed on Joe.
Anu had made a bizarre plan to kill Joe in a murder-suicide after a dinner party. She’d shared these plans with all her friends, several of whom came to her dinner parties out of morbid curiosity, but no-one had told Joe. He died one night after a massive dose of rohypnol (hidden in his coffee) and heroin (injected into his arm). His girlfriend and her best friend were charged with murder.
The book opens with a transcript of the triple-0 call made by Anu Singh as Joe lay dying. What follows is then a personal account by author Helen Garner as she tries to make sense of what happened, firstly by attending the trials of Anu and her friend, and later by talking to both Joe and Anu’s parents, the judge presiding over the cases, and victims of other violent crimes.
By the end of the book we’re not just left with an account of a horrifying crime, but also an uneasy feeling that this story has cast doubt on some big aspects of law and justice in modern society.
For example: If someone is killed in a murder plot so bizarre and heartless that it’s insane, should the killer get compassionate sentencing based on that very insanity? Should the legal definition of ‘duty of care’ be more in line with the moral one? That is, if you hear your friend say she’s going to murder someone and you do nothing, should you be accountable by law? Is part of the role of dispensing justice to give solace to the grieving families left behind? Or if not, how do they ever get solace? And when sentencing, should greater weight be given to retribution, or to rehabilitation?
It’s partly by telling the story in such a personal way that Garner brings these questions out of academic discourse and into vivid, harrowing life. She relates her own first impressions (how a first glance at Singh causes her “she-hackles” to raise), her own insecurities and failings (the case comes in the immediate aftermath of her own divorce), and her own inadequacies in the face of grief and loss (especially when chatting to the kind Mrs Cinque). It’s a hard story for her to keep following, she tells us, but somehow it’s easy for us to keep turning the pages – even though each one brings new woe, new doubt, and a deepening realisation that Singh (or the legal system? or her friends? or her upbringing? or the Canberra student culture?) has created a great number of wounds that will never heal.
Why it made me feel like crap
I read this book in a single sitting – a mistake. By the end I was glossing over some of the finer points about the legal issues involved, racing to see what happened next, how the narrative would end.
When I surfaced and went for a walk to the shops I was in a bleak frame of mind. I found myself looking at each front door I passed thinking, I bet there are horrible broken lives inside that house too, and that one, and the next. I bet the people in there are living lives of sorrow, and the family there have children who’ve lost their way and brought them grief. Or maybe they themselves have dark pasts, shoved away deep down inside, and the damage they’ve caused ignored. Everything seemed lost and bleak and rudderless.
I found myself fearing having kids of my own – how, after all, could you guarantee they wouldn’t also be led down dark pathways and cause you grief? I found myself thinking about my own mistakes – whether of action or perception – and enlarging them in my mind until it felt like I, too, had lived my life on a precipice, disastrously close to destruction and mayhem. I called a friend just to hear a comforting voice. Eventually the mood lifted, but the effect remains.
The effect is a feeling that something, somewhere is very wrong with the way our modern society deals with tragedy, loss, grief and justice. Is it the legal system? Or society? Or parenting, or whatever? Garner doesn’t offer easy answers.
Instead, there’s a big question, and it seems to deal with the schism that exists between the animal and the intellectual. The part of us that has only recently evolved to be separate from the apes – the emotional, grieving, retribution-seeking hind brain – the one that says ‘Hang them!’ – is often in conflict with our modern, intellectual belief that ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ (and which, therefore, recommends compassion and rehabilitation). But while our analytical brains have kept pace, our emotional needs haven’t necessarily. Is this an admirable sign of our progress, or have we forgotten fundamental things about human nature and emotional needs? The encounters Garner has with the people at the Victims of Crime rally seem to suggest the latter.
A good analogy from a different field comes from a recent piece in my local newspaper about how modern medicine deals with death. While the elderly subject of the article lay dying, all the activity around him was focused on keeping him alive, and not on preparing him for death. As a result there was only confusion and fear at the end, not acceptance and peace. Has the legal system lost its way in technicalities in the same way our medical system has lost part of the big picture?
I don’t know what the answers are, but Garner certainly makes me aware that the questions exist, and that’s a start.
Bonus depressing statistic
This is the fiftieth book I’ve written about on this blog, but only the sixth written by a female author. (In total I’ve featured 41 different authors, of whom 5 have been women.) That means that female writers have accounted for a woefully low 12% of my reading in the last year or so. This is appalling, and I’m not the only one to have noticed this problem – but I can choose to change my own habits, so I might try to address the imbalance in the future.