Monday 23 November 2020

The Spare Room | Helen Garner #AWW

I find reading Helen Garner a curious affair. There's a real push me/pull me effect, that intrigues me and wow's me, then repels me all in the same sentence.

I'm intrigued and wowed by her writing, the turn of phrase that captures a moment brilliantly. There's a candour and earthiness that seems grounded in her strong sense of self. Then there's the confronting intimacy about herself and her friends and family. Such awkward, uncomfortable personal details that make me flinch with their rawness, that seem to suggest someone not so sure of their place in the world.

Over the years, I've been impressed with Garner's habit of tackling difficult topics, especially in her non-fiction, like a father killing his own children after an access visit in This House of Grief. These books seem to suggest, that like me, she is on a constant journey to understand human nature. Why do human beings do the things they do? What are our motivations? What stories do we tell ourselves to make the truth, the hard facts palatable? How do we live with ourselves when we do something bad? Questions to make us confront our own biases and preconceptions.

Last year, I attempted to read her Diaries Vol I, but I had to stop. It felt too voyeuristic, like I was trespassing where I didn't belong. I didn't understand Garner's purpose in revealing such private details. Yes, the names were disguised with initials, but if that letter happened to belong to you, it would be easy to feel betrayed and exposed.

I am friendly with someone who will be an initial in Vol II of Garner's Diaries. She said enough water had passed under the bridge since then, but she does not feel the need to revisit the pain by reading about it. I'm beginning to understand why Garner writes so often of falling out with friends. One person's open frankness is often another persons hurtful loss of trust wrapped up in a sense of disloyalty.

Which brings me to The Spare Room

I've been hearing about this novella for quite some time now, and it has been lingering on my TBR pile for almost as long. I assumed it was a memoir from everything I had heard - Helen writing about the three weeks she nursed a dying friend from Sydney, who had decided to try some alternative treatments that had no scientific backing whatsoever in Melbourne.

Yet, The Spare Room is clearly and determinedly classified as a novel (or a novella). The name of the dying friend has been changed and no doubt, the timeline of events has been fictionalised to fit the constraints of the size of the book, but she is still Helen, living next door to her daughter's family in Melbourne. 

I read another fictionalised memoir earlier in the year, Homeland Elegies. I got completely caught up in trying to work out what was fact and what was fiction. I quickly established that a number of the details had been significantly changed from the author's wikipedia bio, but it became too difficult for me to tease it all out. In the end, I stopped worrying about it and sat back to enjoy the story for what it was.

I found myself applying the same approach to The Spare Room.

As a novella, it ticked all of the boxes. It was under 200 pages - just. There was one central theme or conflict with just one, Helen's, point of view. There was very little backstory, and a continuous timeline. The majority of the book was set in Melbourne, with a brief trip to Sydney at the very end. It would be possible to read this is one sitting, if one had 2-3 hrs in which to do so. But thanks to the subject matter, I was happier reading it over three nights, to fully digest the story and absorb the emotional impact.

The Spare Room is one of the books discussed in The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin. Under 'cancer, caring for someone with', this book is discussed along with Alberto Barrera Tyszka's The Sickness and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. They talk about the carer's agonising and the patient's denial. The rage that escalates to self-hatred and the 'bitter humour' that evolves. They finish by saying that this is,
a novel for those inclined to beat themselves up when they struggle to care for their patient 24/7....It's also a reminder that, however serious things are, it helps to laugh.

I came away from the story with a deep disgust for those people who work away in their shoddy rooms, milking sick and dying people of their money, with their bizarre, unverified treatments. 

'It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep.' Elizabeth Jolley

First Lines:
First, in my spare room, I swivelled the bed on to a north-south axis. Isn't that supposed to align the sleeper with the planet's positive energy flow, or something? She would think so.

Favourite Quote:
'What am I supposed to do?'

He put his hand on the dog's head and drew back its ears so that its eyes turned to high slits. 'Maybe that's why she's coming to stay. Maybe she wants you to be the one.'

'What one?'

'The one to tell her she's going to die.'  

  • Winner, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction
  • Winner, Queensland Premier’s Award for Fiction
  • Winner, Barbara Jefferis Award
  • Shortlisted, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
  • Shortlisted, Australian Literary Society Gold Medal
  • Shortlisted, Colin Roderick Award
  • Shortlisted, WA Premier’s Awards
  • Shortlisted, NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction

More Reviews:



  1. This one sounds intriguing.

  2. Glad you enjoyed this Brona, it's not an easy read but I was very impressed.

    1. Yes, I probably didn't say so succinctly above, but I was also impressed. But I do have a thing for books about facing our mortality and processing grief and loss.

  3. I've read a few of HG books, essays (...Helen Garner’s writing is clean and crisp
    ..nothing is slick or shallow)and collected short fiction
    ...but having read the stress she endured writing book about crime (This House of Grief)...I don't know if my psyche can bear the facts.

    1. It was rather harrowing in places, but she was trying to understand how we go on when we've done something really bad. How do we process it, accept it, understand it, acknowledge it when it is just so much easier to lie about it and deny it. That's what I found fascinating.

  4. This is an exceptional review of an exceptional book. Thank you. I read this for my book club in 2010 so it is not immediately fresh in my mind but I do remember it made a big impact on me. But I do remember approaching it with the thought could I do what the narrator did and care for a dying friend? (I think I knew the answer to that already but still) but after reading I also wondered what it is we all need to equip ourselves with in order to face death - "So I imagined that somewhere in her free-wheeling nature she was quietly equipping herself, as everyone must, with whatever it is one needs to die" No answer to either but good to be made to think about both questions again. Thank you Brona

    1. As Nicola finally says towards the end of the story, "Death's at the end of this, isn't it."
      It's something we all have to confront - how to die with dignity? What makes a good death? How do we accept out time has come? As you say, no answer is readily available, but it is good when a book gives you pause to think about these things.

  5. This is a very interesting review, Brona, I'm adding this novel(la ?) to my TBR list, thanks for sharing :)


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