Book Review – Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner

You may remember a few years ago a girl at ANU murdered her boyfriend by giving him a lethal injection of heroin. Or you may not, it was a relatively obscure story that hit the headlines, was dismissed as one of those crazy weird things that happens. In this book Helen Garner attempts to unwrap the mystery, mostly by following the trial and talking to the victims.

I found this book quite moving, because it is essentially the tale of one crazy girl and the entire world that failed to stop her. Essentially, Anu Singh was very beautiful, very self obsessed and quite crazy, but managed to be considered very successful in our modern world. This story explores many of the complications of such a modern world and asks questions about how such a girl was allowed to succeed. Something in the way it is told will be unique from a female perspective, Helen brings up her beauty many times and it is quite clear that the combination of beauty, brains and insanity is the most uncomfortable thing Helen can imagine. There are points in this book where she demonises Anu quite unnecessarily for the way she is, and just as men are prone to give concesssions for beautiful intelligent women, it seems other women are prone to judge and fear them to balance the equation.

Anu has a friend called Madhavi who is often referred to as a creature in the novel, and with good reason. If the book is to be believed she stood by Anu, almost clutched to her, while this mad women talked of suicide, murder and double suicide, and dutifully played the role of the non-thinking accomplice. She pulled out $250 from her bank account which may have been used to purchase the lethal amount of heroin, took heroin with Anu so they could learn how to kill Joe and was generally by Anu’s side whenever Anu would have her. One can help wondering as they read this story what is happening to the world where people feel they must clutch to one another so completely. The uncertainty and doubt of the modern world is pushing individuals who might otherwise flourish into becoming pits of insecurity who have lost a sense of their own self. Society’s constant put-downs of students and the impoverished rub off, and individuals such as Madhavi are driven to do quite strange things. This story is the dead frog that warns an eco-system is in danger, when students start murdering one another for no reason there are signs that people are not happy for some reason.

The skeleton of the tale is thus – Joe and Anu were a perfect couple. Anu has been described, Joe is a relatively simple and socially slow but cute civil engineer. He is putty in Anu’s fingers and she keeps him as a crutch, and her delusions of grandeur extend to the point where she believes she owns his life. What is amazing in this story is that even though Helen searches to uncover Joe, so little can be found. He was a man who had yet to find himself and was so completely overshadowed by Anu. One can only imagine what type of person he would have become if Anu had not been such an overwhelming and supressing force in his life. Of course, it is not her fault, she is eventually discovered to have a personality disorder. It is our fault that such people exist, such relationships exist and we all turn a blind eye. Fair enough we don’t tell people what gender they should have sex with, thats cool. Tolerance is good. But indifference is bad, and the troubled need to be nurtured. Structures that oppress are bad, but strucutures themselves contain our societies goals and values. We listened to the femi-nazi’s and the radicals for too long and we listened too hard, their intention was good but they created a culture of indifference among people which really only suits those able to look after themselves.

Back to the story. Anu held a strange dinner party in which some of the guests were told the party was to celebrate her double-suicide with Joe. And other elaborate stunts. Friends of hers claim that was just the way she was, always talking about suicide, but that does not sit at all well with me. I understand that its cool to be accepting of weird individuals, but this is ridiculous. If you have friends in your group who talk about suicide, that is not cool. They may need help. They may not be angsty, they may not be just suffering from a case of ‘the man’, and they may need help. Its fucked that people just casually sit by and say hey check out this weird friend of mine, he/she has personality disorder and I exploit that by using them as a weird friend instead of helping them and telling them they are a crazy fuck. Cause telling people off is for jocks and straightlaced normal people, we are dark and broody and against the man.

What is most interesting about this book is how much it reveals about Helen. Her writing style is extremely personal. “Maybe only a woman could intuitively grasp the extent to which Singh, like the rest of us, was ruled by her body, imprisoned in it and condemned by to struggle against it. But, oddly, this insight did not melt the hearts of the women who sat listening in court. On the contrary … excuses which would not stand up in the harshly sceptical forum where women face the judgement of their sisters”. Now you can call me totally crazy Helen, but what am I supposed to think reading that as a man. Did you put on your pink coloured glasses when you took this story? Who could care less about judgement of their sisters, we are all people and we have to decide on how to handle this as a community. Its not a women’s issue that men could not understand. Maybe only a woman could be so ridiculously ruled by her gender and see the world only in terms of it, maybe only a woman could be so indignant as to take a murder and turn it into an issue among sisters. How can you claim on the one hand to want equal rights in the workforce, when you so clearly view the world as divided by gender? How can I, as a man, feel comfortable in sharing the running of the country and of society with you, when you treat me like such a fool. Only a woman could understand what it is like to be ruled by their body? Are you stupid – over history it has been men who have live and died by their strength and combat ability. Only a femi-nazi could write such divisive material. In the new world, where we live feminism rather than simply rallying behind its banner, we accept one another for who we are and have given up this stupid men do, women do, nonsense.

Helen writes about a third of this novel about Ms. Cinque. About how she handles it, about what she says in court and the little things that she says. Helen does not talk to Mr. Cinque. She treats him as if he doesn’t exist and when she does mention him, it is as the man who cannot cope because he is not talking to the journalist. It quickly becomes clear what Helen finds so attractive about Joe. He’s dead. He’s perfect for her to guiltlessly imagine as putty between her fingers rather than Anu’s. She is attracted to him because he is simple and harmless and defenseless.

This is a really good book, and despite what I have said it is very well written. It is not really a tribute to Joe Cinque, who knows what this man was like. Treating him as a defenseless victim is probably a bit forced. Read this book as a how to guide of how to appear to be supporting something, in this case feminism, but to be sabotaging it at the same time. Helen quite clearly does not wish for men and women to walk side by side, she wishes to walk side by side with men but to overrule them on important decisions.

I give this book four leamas.


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