Joe Cinque’s Consolation

Content warning: death, mental illness, murder

I’ve been listening to the podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3” which is hosted by Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb for a while now, and they are both enormous fans of Helen Garner. I have actually never read anything by Helen Garner before, and so I was inspired to try one of her books. I wasn’t quite sure where to start, but there was one story (as someone who lives in Canberra and went to the Australian National University) that I have always wanted to know more about.

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“Joe Cinque’s Consolation” by Helen Garner is a non-fiction book about the killing of engineer Joe Cinque by his girlfriend Anu Singh with a lethal injection of heroin in Canberra in 1997, and the subsequent trials in the ACT Supreme Court. Although not present for the aborted joint trial by jury, writer Helen Garner attended the trials of Anu Singh and her friend Madhavi Rao and interviewed friends and family of the accused as well as Joe Singh to try to understand why this death happened.

This was a really difficult book to read. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the surroundings to me – parts of Canberra, the ACT Supreme Court, even the street where Singh and Cinque lived. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the mental health system to me. Maybe this book just felt a bit too close to home.

Also, maybe it was Garner’s writing style. She had a compelling but really terse tone that seemed quite at odds with her descriptions of her own emotional reactions to the events around her. I read the book and didn’t feel like I found much empathy or even information but instead found a lot of judgment. There was something about this book that reminded me of a Louis Theroux documentary I saw once. Unable to get an interview with Michael Jackson, Louis Theroux instead spends his time interviewing everyone he can who is as close as possible to the pop star, trying to find out the real story. I felt like Helen Garner in this book was a smarter version of Louis Theroux. She tried to get to the heart of the story, but in the end, without being able to speak to Anu Singh directly (which was hardly Garner’s fault) the book felt unfinished somehow. I also felt like despite trying to instead shift the focus on Joe Cinque, and having access to his family, the picture of Joe Cinque was incomplete as well.

There were two other things that got under my skin as well as made me think. The first was that despite all the focus on Anu Singh and her actions, you simply cannot tell this story without shining a spotlight on the inaction of the people closest to her. I think this was a source of tension in the story because although the temptation is to think of Anu Singh as some demonic succubus, the reality is that she did what she did because the people around her didn’t stop her. It was a completely preventable crime, yet nobody prevented it – despite Singh’s clearly deteriorating mental state. I felt like this was a concept that Garner herself struggled with, because I felt like Garner’s gut reaction was to dislike Anu Singh.

This leads me to the second point – Anu Singh through a feminist lens. I think Anu Singh herself was problematic because although everyone who knew her was attracted (or repelled by) her beauty, histrionics, fragility and body image obsession – apparent paragons of femininity – she then rejected that femininity by becoming a criminal of the worst kind. Suddenly she wasn’t a thin, pretty and melodramatic young woman anymore. She was a sinister she-devil who used sex to commit an abhorrent crime. I think perhaps Garner struggled to find an objective medium when it came to Singh’s character, especially one that encompassed mental illness, and particularly a personality disorder. Garner focuses a lot on femininity and female relationships in this book, but despite being drawn to the women she meets while researching this book, she never quite seems to be comfortable in that kind of discourse or those kinds of relationships. The lingering of the book over what Singh and Rao are wearing, how they were sitting, how they were reacting during the trial irked me. Perhaps these superficial observations would have been less prominent if the book had been written today. Perhaps today there would have been more of a focus on Singh’s deteriorating mental health and the inability of society to prevent her from hurting herself and others.

The entire time I was reading this book, I kept misremembering the title as “Joe Cinque’s Desolation”. I was looking for the consolation, as I think Helen Garner was as well, and I honestly don’t think in the end either of us found it. I think this is a powerful, insightful and well-researched book (given the circumstances) but I don’t think that it contained any revelations larger than the fact that Australia’s mental health system needs some significant improvement and people need to take threats their friends make seriously.

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6 Comments

Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

6 responses to “Joe Cinque’s Consolation

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  3. Kyra

    I read the book too and I don’t think Garner missed anything. It was clear as day: Anu Singh was a narcissistic, possibly sociapathic young woman drowning in her own self-obsessions, who killed her doting boyfriend then manipulated the justice system so as she could plead the insanity defence and get off with manslaughter, a lesser charge. I’ve done a lot of dugging, not just from reading then re-reading the book, but searched newspaper clippings and the like. She was a calculated and controlling woman who should have served a longer sentence.

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    • Kyra

      Furthermore, if we continually blame society as the problem, then we are going to abdicate personal responsibility. Garner addressed this in her book with her poor choices/bad behaviour/”simple wickedness” vs. psychiatry. We can’t keep falling back on this progressive leftie approach to mental illness. Yes we need better healthcare and attention to failing mental health, but we cannot suggest that a person be so helpess as to fall victim to “society”. Only in the case of something very serious like schizophrenia/psychosis can “responsibility” be argued, and even schizophrenia only affects 1% of the population. Singh certainly was not schizophrenic so much as she was vain and manipulative.

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      • Thanks Kyra, I think in particular the alarming thing for me about this case was that Singh told her friends she was going to kill Joe and they did nothing to stop her and several assisted her by providing her with heroin and attending her parties. Surely if someone tells you that they want to kill someone and obtain the means to do it, you as an individual have a responsibility to step in? This isn’t about Singh’s actions which were abhorrent whichever way you look at them, but this was a preventable death. Joe Cinque would still be alive if one of Singh’s friends stood up to her

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    • Thanks for your comment Kyra, it was definitely a very emotionally-charged book and a strange case. I think for me, drawing on my experience in the mental health sector and the legal sector, I was more interested in the social and systemic factors that were missing that allowed this crime to happen in the first place rather than the response afterwards and the degree of “punishment” that Singh should have received in her sentence.

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