04 July 2024

Review: Joe Cinque's Consolation by Helen Garner

Joe Cinque's Consolation by Helen Garner book cover

Many readers will be familiar with the tragic death of Joe Cinque in Canberra in 1997 and the subsequent trial of his killer Anu Singh who administered a lethal cocktail of drugs and then, as he lay dying, failed to call an ambulance in time to save his life.

After reading my review of The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge last year, and my astonishment at the despicable cruelty by one of the most cold and calculating females in Australia, a friend I trust recommended I read Joe Cinque's Consolation by Helen Garner. Another reader familiar with my reading tastes also recommended it after seeing my review of Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner in 2018 so I guess it was time.

Briefly familiar with the crime and subsequent court cases, my initial hesitancy grew from a concern I would struggle to come to terms with the legal outcome. At the same time I was curious to see how the great Helen Garner would approach the case and decided to listen to the audiobook read by the author in conjunction with the paperback.

The book begins with a transcript of Anu Singh's 000 call and it infuriated me so much I could barely listen. It took paramedics 20 minutes to get the correct address from the caller who gave a false name and false address and was fuelled by her own histrionics, sense of entitlement and selfish fears about what was going to happen to her. Beginning with the most harrowing material first was an inspired choice and immediately set the scene on the despicable type of person Anu Singh was on that night, and no doubt still is.

Garner tries to remain impartial and approaches people from both sides of the case for their input, but I enjoyed her writing most when she shared her frustrations and irritations, from the very minor - as in the quote to follow - right up to the soul destroying question of justice and duty of care.

When describing the first expert witness in the case for the Defence, Dr Byrne, a clinical and forensic psychologist from Melbourne, Garner observes:

"Something about him got up my nose. Was it his debonair and stagy demeanour, his habit of addressing the judge man-to-man, his didactic listing and numbering of points as if to a room full of freshers?" Page 37

When reflecting on the culpability of Madhavi Rao and her role in sourcing the drugs and failing to prevent Joe Cinque's death, Garner fears Rao will end up serving more time in jail than Singh because she didn't suffer from psychiatric delusions; she wasn't mad.

"Where does one person's influence end, and another's responsibility begin?" Page 177

A really poignant question and not one I found a satisfactory answer to. Singh's relationship dynamic with Joe was possessive and manipulative and displayed the hallmarks of a narcissistic cycle of abuse. It's these characteristics and sheer disregard for Joe's welfare that place Singh in the same category as another cold hearted and self motivated killer, Natasha Darcy. How did these women control and manipulate their partners while hiding their torturous and ultimately murderous intent?

To her immense credit, Helen Garner built a personable relationship with the Cinque family and Joe's mother Maria in particular. Garner continually questions her involvement with the family but I genuinely believe she was a source of comfort during the trial of both women right through to their individual verdicts and beyond.
"Nothing I could think of to say or do would ever be of any use to her. I was helpless, only a vessel into which she would pour forever this terrible low fast stream of anguish. The pressure of her pain was intolerable. I would give way under it. I too would fail her. I did not know how to bring the phone call to an end. But then she got a grip on herself. Once more she drew on her deep reserves of formal grace, and let me off the hook. We would see each other - yes, we would meet again in Canberra. I asked her to give Nino my best wishes, and offered the same to her. With dignity she accepted my timid crumbs. We said goodbye. I hung up, exhausted, in awe. I longed to know her, but I was afraid that I would not be strong enough." Page 194-195
Garner bears witness to the never ending depths of the grief suffered by Joe Cinque's family, but in sharing her vulnerability she also demonstrates the toll it can take on those standing close to that chasm of emotional torment and loss. Maria's grace is an inspiration to Garner, just as the author's strength became an inspiration to me.

At the end of reading Joe Cinque's Consolation - A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law I'm left feeling utterly bereft and bewildered. The complete lack of justice for Joe or consequences for his killer and the person who could have stopped his death took my breath away. There's no justice in this case, both women seem to have no remorse and are now free to live their lives while the Cinque family continue to grieve the loss of their son and brother.

Helen Garner isn't able to offer any hope here, but using the gift of her writing and drawing on her own fortitude, she has successfully managed to shine a light on this terrible case, give comfort to Joe's family and educate readers and that will have to be consolation enough.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. Great review of an intriguing story.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, it was a difficult review to write given the subject matter. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. I read this book some years ago and was anguished by the outcome for
    Joe’s family. He was an innocent victim of a heinous crime.

    1. Thanks Diana, I'm coming to this quite late but it doesn't lessen the heartache.


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