Monday, 4 September 2006

Review: Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen Garner (2004)

Dewey Decimal Classification: 345.947 4

In this non-fiction narrative, Garner takes centre stage, describing, in detail, the events that she noted, armed with a notebook and pens, from 1999 to 2003. The murder — she’s convinced it was murder — of Joe Cinque occurred in 1997. The accused, Anu Singh — a flighty, manipulative and very beautiful girl of Indian extraction — gets four years’ incarceration. Madhavi Rao — a demure, passive, diminutive young woman — gets off scot-free.

Joe emerges, especially toward the end, as a wholly sympathetic character. It’s not surprising, since Singh won’t talk to Garner after her release from Silverwater Prison. Garner is thrown on the resources of Maria Cinque, a woman of towering passions and great dignity, who entertains the writer at her Newcastle home, invites her over to talk to Joe’s friends and family, and generally provides material that will serve to sway the reader’s sympathies.

The book grows on you. After an awkward start, when Garner describes how she started to study the case, the narrative picks up speed and the delineations of the case become clear.

Singh is obviously slightly demented and probably evil. Rao as an accomplice — why didn’t she inform the police when she knew that Singh wanted to kill Cinque? — is clearly remiss in her judgement. But she walks free. Joe’s parents are furious at the judgements.

The apple on the cover of the book is a reference to Joe, a sign of his presence, a promise not to let his memory be forgotten.

I longed to write a lament for Joe Cinque. But what would be the use of one more victim story? What fresh understanding could it bring?

Garner’s complaint is an indictment of the justice system, that allows criminals to earn lenient sentences due to diminished responsibility — Singh’s case. It also refers to the lack of accountability, of blame when a witness, someone close to the crime, doesn’t put out their hand to help — Rao’s case.

The finale is haunting and poignant, not overloaded with sentiment, but reserving its final plaint for the departed: a young man with so much promise cut down in the prime of his life.

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