The Spare Room, Helen Garner


The Spare Room is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters in this book and real people, living or dead, is coincidental.” Except of course that this is an almost journalistic account of Helen Garner’s nursing of her friend, Jenya Osborne (Wiki), Nicola in this ‘novel’, who is dying of cancer.

Peter Carey, for the back cover blurb, calls this “A PERFECT NOVEL, imbued with all Garner’s usual clear-eyed grace …”. But Robert Dessaix writes in his review, “[Garner’s works] are not novels. They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. ”

Let Garner have the last word, “She doesn’t want to define fiction, and the notion that it should be entirely made up is, of course, absurd.” [Interview in The Age, 29 Mar. 2008]

Garner, and her protagonist ‘Helen’, were about 60 when The Spare Room was written, living in an inner-northern Melbourne suburb within walking distance of the Broadmeadows train line, with her daughter’s family next door, when she accepted a request from an old friend, Nicola, to stay for three weeks while she underwent a course of ‘alternative’ therapy for her terminal cancer.

Before Nicola arrives Helen discusses her with her therapist friend, Leo:

‘You work with cancer patients,’ I said. ‘Does this sound bad?’
He shrugged. ‘Pretty bad. Stage four.’
‘How many stages are there?’
‘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.’

In Sydney, Nicola, an old hippy, has a house on the northern beaches accessible only by dinghy and a long clamber up from the beach. This involves an effort which for some time she has been too weak to make and so she has been staying with her niece and the niece’s boyfriend, Iris and Gab, in their one-bedroom flat closer to the city. Unbeknownst to Nicola, Helen and Iris have been discussing her via email.

The treatment that Nicola has chosen involves injections of huge doses of Vitamin C which incapacitate her and leave her in tremendous pain, which she attempts to deal with, initially at least, with aspirin, though Helen quickly gets her to a real doctor and a prescription for proper pain killers.

Garner’s writing is spare and to the point. For three weeks she takes us through the day to day struggle of getting Nicola to appointments; of edging her back to conventional medicine; of the sleepless nights spent removing and replacing bedding soaked with night sweats; Helen’s own life and work, even her relationship with her granddaughter, on hold for the duration.

The heart of this story is not the failure of alternative therapy; not the huge workload imposed on Helen, the long nights, the hours spent ferrying Nicola to and from appointments; nor even Nicola’s refusal to give up on alternative therapy in the face of all evidence to the contrary; but of Helen dealing with her anger – her anger with the venal and incompetent alternative therapists, with Nicola’s rictus of a smile in denial of her punishing pain, but most of all, with Nicola’s refusal to face up to her impending death.

Yet through it all, Helen maintains her love for Nicola and remains committed to caring for her for the whole three weeks. I don’t think Helen is ever angry at Nicola for asking this of her and I certainly don’t think she begins to hate her, although this was the impression I retained from listening to all those Radio National discussions of The Spare Room back in 2008.

Iris and Gab come for a short stay and they encourage Helen to confront Nicola with her anger:

The last of my self-control gave way.
‘Get that grin off your face. Get it off, or I’ll wipe it off for you.’
It faded of its own accord. She took two steps backwards, gaping at me. ‘Why are you so angry?’
‘This house is full of anger! Can’t you feel it? The rooms are stuffed with it. And a lot of it’s got to be yours.’
‘Everyone’s angry, everyone’s scared,’ I shouted. ‘You’re angry and scared. But you won’t admit it. You want to keep up this masquerade, so you dump your shit on me. I’m sick with it. I can’t breathe.’

Nicola gets a new diagnosis which means an operation and then recuperation in Melbourne but Helen cannot face even one more day beyond the 21 requested. In a final chapter Garner fills us in on Nicola’s final weeks – she has the operation and recuperates in the Windsor Hotel (a fine old hotel and a Melbourne icon) with carers flown down from Sydney, then Helen flies to Sydney to join the women in Iris’s apartment seeing Nicola through to the end.

As seemingly with all Garner’s work, this is a story about Garner, about Garner’s reaction to the stress of having sole care of a dying, loved friend. We know this is the third time she has had to do this, first for her sister, then her mother, so perhaps its about her reaction to them dying too, despite her care for them. Garner’s utter honesty about her own reactions make The Spare Room unputdownable.


Helen Garner, The Spare Room, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008

Robert Dessaix’s review in The Monthly (here)
Jason Steger, The Age, Melbourne, 29 Mar 2008, Interview: It’s fiction and that’s a fact, (here)

Michelle at Adventures in Biography is a Garner fan and has posts on Garner’s This House of Grief (here and here)
Sue at Whispering Gums must be a fan too. A list of her Garner posts (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers is not a fan but she has reviewed The Spare Room (here)
My review of Garner’s essay collection The Feel of Steel (here)


21 thoughts on “The Spare Room, Helen Garner

  1. This is a great review. It’s been ages since I’ve read the Spare Room but you’ve made me want to go back for another look. Thanks for the links, too.


    • Thanks. I found it quite moving. Helen loved her friend and maybe even loves the idea that women come together to help when needed. But boy, does she struggle with her emotions. She writes so well about herself that a biographer is going to struggle to say something new.


  2. This sounds like a tough book. I read an article about a new book coming out about the end of Kathy Acker’s life. It was tough to read that she was full of cancer but denied it because she used alternative therapies. When my own grandpa was obviously going to die of cancer, some family members reached for alternative therapies, ones that were so obviously shit that I hoped the facilities pimping their wares would spontaneously burst into flames. I’m also wondering why this author didn’t honestly write nonfiction. I had a CNF professor who said readers want percentages: 10% fact, 90 fiction, or maybe they allow 75% fact and 25 fiction, etc.


    • It is a tough book, but Garner is much loved in Oz and we are used to her only writing about herself. I didn’t hear Kathy Acker had gone, I might dig up one of her books for a review.


  3. I love Garner’s work. Really love it. But I haven’t read this one (and thank you for your comprehensive review because I’ll put off reading it a little longer). Oddly, I’d been waiting for the audio book of this from my library for quite some time last year. Finally, my number came up. Woohoo! I downloaded it but didn’t start listening immediately. Later that day I got an unexpected call from my dermatologist. My routine mole check/ removal of a fortnight before returned a melanoma result that was well down the stage 2 track and heading for stage 3. I couldn’t face a cancer story while I was dealing with my own and fear now that the book is tainted for me (even though I was operated on days later and have been in the clear since).

    But what will draw me to it is Garner’s unique ability to make fact read like a story. And she does it so plainly, without any narrative tricks and yet the result is incredible.


  4. This is a lovely write up Bill. I opened it with trepidation wondering if you were going to hate it. I read it with my reading group in mid-2008, several months before I started blogging. I love Garner and I get tired of these “is it a novel or isn’t bulls***t” that some critics some to engage in with her. Garner once said that she draws from life but that she organises, selects and frames – artifice in other words – to create a story.

    Anyhow, I can’t recollect what exactly I thought Garner was saying in The spare room – besides being frustrated with alternative medicine and its preying on vulnerable people, BUT I do agree that it’s fundamentally about Garner. The thing I love about her (besides the fact that she can write) is her honesty, her willingness to say things that people may not like, that may being wrath down upon her. I admire her immensely.


    • Thank you! I’m afraid I am going to write negative reviews from time to time (if I don’t like the next Grenville I try, I’ll write and warn you first). But Garner is an excellent writer, Orwellian in her simplicity and clarity. I think that in the books I like best the author is struggling with something in her/him self – because that’s where I as a reader learn the most – and that certainly describes Garner. (that describes DH Lawrence but I’m not sure it applies to Jane. I’ll have to think some more)


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