Book Review: Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner

March 25, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

In 1997, Anu Singh, a beautiful young Indian-Australian woman studying law at ANU killed her boyfriend Joe Cinque, an Italian-Australian engineering student, by first drugging him and then injecting him with a lethal dose of heroin while he slept. It was supposed to be a murder-suicide, except Singh couldn’t go through with the second part. Instead, she watched for 36 hours as Cinque died an agonising death. He was only 26 years old.

In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Australian writer Helen Garner tries to make sense of this brutal, senseless and absolutely bizarre crime. She flies to Canberra to attend the trial of Singh and her obedient friend and ‘accomplice’, Madhavi Rao, befriending Joe Cinque’s parents and becoming more and more emotionally involved.

Why did Singh do what she did? Why did Rao help her? Why did their friends, all of whom knew about Singh’s plans, do nothing to stop them (they even attended a supposed ‘suicide’ party). Were they mentally ill or were they simply manipulating the law? And was psychiatry and the law going to allow them to get away with it?

This is a chilling, gut wrenching book. Filled with intricate details and descriptions of the death, the trial and the aftermath, it is admittedly painful to read at times, and yet I could not stop turning the pages. It is the kind of book that makes me want to devour more non-fiction in a hurry.

Garner writes with a simple, elegant prose that somehow cuts straight to the heart. Given the title of the book and the facts that she became friends with the Cinques and never managed to interview either Singh or Rao, it is no surprise which side she takes.  I suppose she makes an attempt to be objective, to be understanding to the other side, but she never got very far.  But that’s Helen Garner for you.  Say what you want about her, but at least she has the balls to put her views out there, even if she knows she may be crucified for them (like she was when she published The First Stone, which detailed a sexual harrassment claim by two young women against the head of their college at Melbourne University).

I had wanted to read this book since being introduced to it in my non-fiction writing class last year, and was glad to discover that it is compulsory reading for one of my other subjects this year (two birds with one stone!).  I read it all in China (about half of it on the plane ride over) and discussed it in class this week.  I was surprised by lukewarm reception by some of my classmates, who thought this was more Helen Garner’s consolation than Joe Cinque’s because she inserts herself firmly into the narrative.  They didn’t care about her marriage break up, how tired she was feeling, how outraged she felt for the Cinques.  She was pushing her life and personal beliefs onto her readers, and they despised that.

I don’t agree.  It’s her book.  Why should she keep her opinions to herself?  This is not a lifeless news report that purports to be objective.  By being so close to the ‘action’, she had woven herself into the fabric of the story.  She could have written herself out of it, like Capote in In Cold Blood, but instead she chose to tell it from her eyes and heart.  Besides, we have a choice.  We don’t have to read it.  We don’t have to agree with her.

No matter the opinion, few would disagree that Joe Cinque’s Consolation is a fantastic read.  It may be flawed book, but still a very good one, and one that had me captivated from start to finish.

4.25 stars out of 5

[For those who have read the book or are interested, I would recommend checking out this ABC interview with Anu Singh and the Cinques.  Really chilling, riveting stuff (with spoilers of course).