Book Review: Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner

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Reading this book is a bit of a divergence for me as I’m an almost exclusive fiction reader but I saw it in the book store after coincidentally catching a Writers in the Rotunda program on TV (a Victoria University series of conversations with writers) where Helen Garner was talking about the five-year process of writing it.

In the end it turned out not to be such a big change because it is written in a novelistic tone. I think they call it creative non-fiction. It’s not simply a group of facts set out in a straightforward manner – the story being told prevents that.

Joe Cinque was killed in 1997. In 1999, Helen Garner was contacted by a journalist who thought she might be interested in writing about it. She wasn’t sure. After some preliminary research, she went to Canberra, where the trial was already underway. Two women, law students at the Australian National University, had been charged with murder. After an aborted shared trial, the two women – the girlfriend of the victim and her close friend – were now being tried separately.

The outcome of the case is not a secret – Joe Cinque’s girlfriend was convicted of manslaughter, spending less than five years in jail, and her friend was acquitted of all charges – so the book focuses on the bizarre details of how and why he died. The author weaves her own narrative into the story and actually makes it the story of her involvement with the trial, the families, the lawyers and judge, and her ultimate decision about the kind of book she was going to write.

This is the third book I’ve read this year where the main character is a journalist or writer (Amnesia by Peter Carey and Sisters of Mercy by Caroline Overington being the other two). While the other two books were fictional and the inclusion of the reporters was a choice, I don’t think Helen Garner had any other options. If she’d taken the path of a straight reporting of the facts, the book would have been completely unsatisfying.

Instead, the result is eminently readable despite the inevitable frustration it induces. Joe Cinque’s death was completely pointless, engineered and executed by a woman who may have been suffering from a psychological disorder or who may have just been the most self-involved person alive, maybe both. She told many people of her plans, then drugged him with Rohypnol and injected him with a fatal dose of heroin, watching him die slowly over many, many hours, getting cold feet at several points but only calling the ambulance at the end and spending over twenty minutes on the phone with the 000 operator before revealing the address.

But what is worse is that multiple people had the chance to save him and chose not to, even preventing him from being saved by others in some cases. Even more shockingly, the majority of these people were law students, studying to become professionals whose sole purpose is to uphold the law (or so we lay people think).

The whole book is a reminder that it is a legal system and not a justice system, and that the gap between the law and ethics is very wide.

Perhaps the greatest triumph is the author’s continual focus and ongoing references to Joe Cinque. So often books about true crimes focus on the perpetrators but the refusal of the two accused women to give interviews to the author allowed her to return time and time again to Joe. I’ve chosen not to name either woman here in a similar sort of tribute. They don’t deserve to be acknowledged or remembered.

Don’t read this book expecting a neat ending or an uplifted feeling. It is an account of the worst in life – people who trust and are betrayed, people who are selfish and stupid, people who are criminal, people who are let down by the system (which is all of us really), and the people who are left behind with the real life sentences. But it is also a terrific piece of writing. It was being made into a film in 2015 so I’ll be interested to see if the filmmakers can do it justice.

4 stars

*First published on Goodreads 16 November 2015

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