‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner

TheSpareRoom

Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 180 pages; 2008.

Even before I started reading Helen Garner‘s The Spare Room I knew I was going to like it. It was the design of the book that convinced me, because surely a publisher wouldn’t go to all this trouble to make it look so beautiful if the content was rubbish? The cover image grabbed me initially when I ordered it online, but once I had it in my possession I loved the whole package: the gorgeous cover image (tulips are my favourite flowers); the dust jacket with its luxurious matt sheen; the pretty endpapers (tulip petals interspersed with green leaves); and a green bound bookmark.

But putting the sheer physical beauty of the book aside, The Spare Room is also rather special because it is Garner’s first novel in 16 years. Her last novel, Cosmo Comolino, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 1992, but she then took a different writing path, concentrating on short stories and journalism. The first (and only) Garner I have read was The First Stone, a non-fiction account of a sexual harassment scandal at a residential college at the University of Melbourne, which caused much controversy upon publication in 1995. I ate that book up in the course of a day and closed the last page feeling dazed, slightly dirty and not quite sure whether the author was a genius or a traitor. Having now read The Spare Room my opinion lies toward the former rather than the latter.

That other great Australian author Peter Carey endorses Garner’s talent by describing her new book as a “perfect novel”.  Of course this is an oft overused trite phrase but, in this specific case, it’s a wholly appropriate one. In fact, I’d go so far as to describe it as a sublime novel, and one that works its way into your subconscious so that you find yourself thinking about it when you are doing other things.

Reviewing the book is difficult though, because the synopsis sounds terribly dull and depressing. A 60-something woman offers her spare room to a cancer-stricken friend of the same age and then finds their relationship tested to the core, doesn’t really grab you by the throat, does it? And yet, in Garner’s careful hands this story becomes a thoroughly engrossing one. The carefully measured prose, stripped of unnecessary clutter, serves to remove the claustrophobia of such a dark storyline, imbuing it with a light-hearted touch. Indeed, there were many times when I laughed out loud, not the least of when Nicola, the cancer sufferer, asks Helen, the friend caring for her, to buy some organic coffee for an enema.

When I saw her brewing the organic coffee in the kitchen after dinner, I said tentatively, ‘Do you need a hand to set it up? I can…
She shook her head, too busy to listen.
‘I wonder, though,’ I said, as she forged off to the bathroom with the equipment. ‘Is it a good idea to have a coffee enema at bedtime? You don’t think the caffeine might keep you awake?’
‘Why on earth would it do that, darling?’ she said breezily. ‘I won’t be drinking it — I’ll only be putting it up my bum.’

Supposedly based on Garner’s own experience of caring for a dying friend, The Spare Room has a genuine ring of authenticity about it. You can understand Helen’s anger, her fear, her inability to look after her dying friend, even if it is for just three weeks, because you know to be in a similar situation you’d probably feel the same way. Why should a friend do what a family member should be doing? And what happens if this friend dies in your spare room?

This is a novel about death and friendship, about drawing lines and crossing them, about facing up to hard truths and shying away from things we’d rather not confront. But it also embraces other uncomfortable issues, including whether it is permissible to believe in alternative therapies if Western medicine does not have a solution, but all the while it never preaches, never comes across as heavy or patronising.

The Spare Room is one of those books that throws you in at the deep end and, to completely mix my metaphors, you either run with it or you don’t. I’m pleased to say I ran with it… and only wished it was longer than its brief 180 pages.

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16 thoughts on “‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner

  1. This novel sounds very good and the cover is beautiful. Many times a cover is why I choose to find out what the book is about. I just checked though and the book doesn’t seem available in Canada yet. I’ll have to check back-this definitely sounds like a book I’d like to read. Thank you for the great review.

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  2. Darlene, I’m not sure whether the book will be published in Canada or not. It’s obviously got Australian and NZ rights, followed by UK rights, so perhaps you’ll have to keep your fingers crossed that the North American rights will follow suit. It will be a great shame if it doesn’t find its way into Canadian book stores, because it deserves a wider audience.

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  3. Stephanie, I know you shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but I think an attractive cover makes reading all that much more pleasurable.
    Isabel, yes, it is set in Melbourne, Australia, and makes no concessions for international readers in its use of street names, shops, rock groups, etc.

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  4. You are not going to believe this but I read this book the weekend before last and have written my little piece about it, I have just not posted it on my blog yet. I absolutely loved this book; only a couple of pages into it I was smiling because it was so good but I have to confess it also made me cry.

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  5. Stewart, hope you enjoy it!
    Wendy, how funny! Yes, it’s one of those books that makes you laugh and cry, isn’t it? I thought it was just magic. So simple and yet so complex.

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  6. I meant to get to this comment when you posted it earlier but time just slipped away … again 😉
    Anyway, the Australian edition is also a nice little hardback edition – but with a different cover. I am hard pushed to decide which is the nicer – they are both beautiful. (If you want to see the Australian version just do a search in my catalogue on librarything.com under rubyredbooks)
    I also “knew” I was going to like this book – maybe because I have really liked most of her other stuff. Having spoken to some people here though they think Garner is a bit of a sour puss and very hard on her friends! I have to say I think she was a little restrained in this novel – I kept saying “go on Helen – tell her like it is”! A lot longer before she did!
    Anyway, I also saw Garner at the Sydney Writer’s Festival in May, not long after I finished the novel – it was really wonderful seeing her in person talking on the book among other things. I also read Feel of Steel straight after – I was in such a Helen Garner mood! (And loved it too – of course.)

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  7. Nutmeg, great to hear from you again! Where have you been? Yes, I believe Garner’s not particularly well liked — I get the impression she doesn’t suffer fools, which is a good quality to have in my books!
    PS> Have you changed the security settings on your blog? I can’t seem to access it.

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  8. I have put my blog in “holiday mode” – as I call it! (i.e., no-one has access) I am not posting at the moment and am not sure when I will return to it. I definitely need to learn to put some balance into my life before I do. I tend to go full tilt at something and a lot of other areas of my life suffer. I found I was reading too many blogs and not enough books! I am keeping my toe in though by reading a few and commenting sporadically – gently does it 😉

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  9. I have recently read The Spare Room and it is still resonating with me after several months. I would just like to suggest another book by Garner which is non-fiction titled Joe Cinque’s Consolation for anyone looking to read more of her work. This is brilliant and examines the Australian justice system and the meaning of duty of care. This is truly harrowing and thought provoking. Highly recommended.

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  10. jeniwren, thanks for the tip-off. Will keep that book in mind. I’m definitely interested in reading more by Garner, so it’s nice to hear someone recommending her other work.

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  11. “The Spare Room” is a novel I’ll remember for a long time, an endearing laugh riot about cancer that shows that people don’t lose their special humanness just because they get cancer. Helen Garner has indeed created a special book.

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  12. I have just put this book down and loved it so much I had to read what others thought of it. I bought it a few months ago in an opp shop and it has been sitting in the tbr pile. When I was camping in a remote bush camp in East Gippsland, I saw a lady reading it sitting near the Snowy River. We struck up a conversation and she told me how good it was so I picked it up when I came home. I devoured it in two days! I love how Garner showed how different personalities deal with death and dying and I loved the raw emotions of the fictional Helen in the book. I had read Joe Cinque’s Consolation a few years ago and really enjoyed that book too. I have Monkey Grip in my tbr as well but from all accounts that is not nearly as good as her other books.

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  13. Oh yes, I have fond memories of this book — so short and sweet and sublime. I’ve since gone on to read Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which I thought excellent, and Monkey Grip, which didn’t really resonate as I thought it might. I chose it for my book group and EVERYONE hated it!

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