Joe Cinque is dead. It's the leitmotif and only real truth in Helen Garner's true-crime account, Joe Cinque's Consolation (Picador; 328 pages). He was the good-natured son of Italian migrants who moved from Newcastle to Canberra to live with his sexy law- student girlfriend. She is Anu Singh, the indulged daughter of Sydney doctors whose eating disorders and Prozac popping saw her charge reduced to manslaughter, and who walked away with four years in jail and a masters' degree in criminology. A decade ago, in The First Stone, Garner lifted the lid off a famous sexual harassment case. Unable to speak with the female complainants, Garner raised feminist hackles by suggesting they were partly to blame. Here, denied access to Singh and her law-student friend Madhavi Rao - who was found not guilty of being an accomplice - Garner must again resort to speculation. Relating trial accounts of two drug-laced dinner parties at the couple's home in the days before Cinque's death, where Singh declared her desire to commit suicide and take him with her, the author asks: "Did Joe Cinque have his wits about him long enough to grasp what was going on? Anu Singh must know, but she wasn't talking."
During the trials, stories of dieting and drugs swirled around the femme fatale, who complained of a muscle-wasting disease and went to shooting-up classes at a friend's house bearing gifts of Danish pastries. As her own father says, "Beautiful girl! Beautifully dressed! Who went to clubs!" This is a story filled with exclamation points. Unfortunately, it isn't one the author can fully tell. With access only to Cinque's grieving parents, an increasingly "cranky" Garner fills out her narrative with personal asides, briefly considers fictionalizing events, and ends up reading Crime and Punishment.
Cinque's death, she concludes, "was not a convenient screen on to which I could project sorrows of my own … It was not even 'a story.' It was real." Yet reality is the grist of good journalism. Is it too much to ask of Garner to piece it all together? She wasn't present at Joe Cinque's last supper, but there were plenty of witnesses who were. And what exactly happened during the rest of the groggy weekend it took for him to die? Instead, Garner writes to the newly paroled Singh: "I wanted to ask her about her soul." The heart of darkness in this heartbreaking tale remains pitch black; not even a searching writer like Garner can illuminate it.