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)


The Feel of Steel, Helen Garner


Michelle at Adventures in Biography is such an enthusiastic advocate for the writing of Helen Garner that I could not help but add The Feel of Steel to the already considerable pile of books I had picked up at a recent UWA/Save the Children book sale. But at an average price of $2.50 I was doing ok, and now I’ve read it I realise I was doing very well indeed.

Garner is a little bit older than I expected, born in 1942 in Geelong, Vic, brought up, as she tells us, in Geelong and nearby Ocean Grove, and put on the path to privilege via exclusive girls’ school The Hermitage and Janet Clarke Hall/Melbourne Uni. For me, she has always been the author of Monkey Grip (1977), a seminal, semi-autobiographical novel of druggy inner-Melbourne. But she has also become increasingly well-known for her investigative non-fiction, in particular The First Stone (1995) and This House of Grief (2014).

The Feel of Steel (2001) is a series of essays, 31 in all, culled from sources as various as The Age, Women’s Weekly and Best Australian Essays. The title refers to an ‘old French’ phrase, “le sentiment de fer”, used in the sport of fencing. I found this collection much easier to read than a book of short stories for one reason, not because it is well written, although it is, but because the stories have one unifying focus – Helen Garner and her life from the end of her third marriage in the mid 1990s.

In the first story she shocks me, writing, “What’s home supposed to be, anyway? Is it the flat in Sydney where I live now?” Garner lives in Sydney?! Who knew? She has always been as quintessentially Melbourne as … well, the Fitzroy Baths. To my relief, a few stories later she is on her way back down the Hume Highway, pausing at Albury to catch her breath, then home:

My first breath of night carried the scent of grasslands, the mighty Keilor plains that lie northwest of Melbourne. I grabbed hold of the garden tap, swung my head under it, and guzzled the warm water till it became cold, and kept on guzzling till my teeth hurt. (Melbourne’s Famous Water).

The stories cover a wide range of topics, but always with Helen at the centre, from a trip to the Antarctic ice, to dealing with the grief of marriage breakup, to engaging with her family, her parents, her sisters, her daughter, her grandchild. She muses on what makes a reader and a writer and muses on the guilty secret of book people everywhere:

I’ve been asking around: I knew I couldn’t be the only person capable of forgetting the contents of a novel only minutes after having closed it. I’ve found that people bluff when they talk about books. They pretend to remember things that they don’t remember at all. Intense anxiety and guilt cluster round the state of having read. Press the memory of a book, and it goes blurry. (Woman in a Green Mantle).

Garner it seems is a church goer, Anglican, regular enough that she is on the roster for reading the lesson, though I’m sure you’ll understand I skipped the chapter on bible reading. I did, however, bring myself to read the chapter on a diet involving constant enemas at ‘the Spa Resort on Koh Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand’:

And twice a day you collect your numbered bucket of fluid and retire to your private bathroom. You hang the bucket from a rusty wire hook in the ceiling over the toilet. You take off all your clothes (this can get messy). … [You fit your ‘personal colema tip’] … You hold your anal sphincter closed for as long as you can tolerate the steadily growing sensation of fullness … (A Spy in the House of Excrement)

As with a couple of other stories, this is both a diary of her experience and close observations of her fellows, writing at which Garner excels.

Over the course of the book her elderly parents leave the family home and take an apartment in the city – Garner is shocked at her father’s lack of attachment to things and places – and her mother is admitted to a nursing home with dementia:

I am ashamed to recall how harshly we witnessed the years of her decline. When she told the same anecdote over and over, in exactly the same words and with the same intonation, we would roll our eyes at each other behind her back, or joke about it on the phone afterwards. (Our Mother’s Flood 1)

Inevitably in a book about Melbourne, Garner gets caught up in the footy – going to see Western Bulldogs players in a ‘Male Revue’ at the casino (including, as it happens, the father of one of the stars of the Bulldogs’ recent historic premiership), and later at a game, and watching her nephew play on a wet Saturday in the outer suburbs. Over the course of two stories she also takes up fencing and in the heat of her first veterans’ competition discovers the joy of competing:

And I won a medal. A bronze medal on a long blue ribbon. Typing this, I’ve still got it on…

We all, even the victorious hulk from the mountains, kissed each other and shook hands. It was a radiant companionship.

I’m different, since that day. My body feels taller, stronger, freer. At this late age I suddenly understand why people on winter Saturdays scramble and strain in mud. The devotion and patience of coaches, their severe heartening – all this is clear to me now. At last, at last, I get it. I yelled and sang with gratitude all the way home. (The Feel of Steel 2).

In the final story she spends some time in the backroom of a friend’s made-to-measure bridal wear shop, observing and occasionally participating in, fittings. Loving the rush as it all comes together. Helen’s never been married in a ‘big’ dress. There’s no mention of a number 4, but hey, there’s still time.


Helen Garner, The Feel of Steel, Picador, Sydney, 2001

Helen Garner has plenty of fans among the Australian blogs I follow, so for more reading, Resident Judge (here) and Whispering Gums (here) have multiple posts. Michelle (here) and Kate W (here) review Garner’s This House of Grief (2014) and Lisa at ANZLL has posts (here) on the recent WA Premier’s Awards, including Garner’s success with This House of Grief and (here) for The Spare Room (2008).

My review of The Spare Room (here)

I see Garner has published this year another collection of essays and other stuff, Everywhere I Look, Text (Guardian review) (Reading Matters)