The Spare Room by Helen Garner

For some reason I had in my head that Helen Garner would be a prim and proper writer (whatever that means). Maybe because of her age? Maybe her name? All the flower pots on the covers of her books? It just goes to show that you can’t judge a writer by the impression you have of them. Because, although The Spare Room is about a couple of older ladies and one of them is dying, the women are feisty and take up a good amount of space. And, although not a lot of background information is laid out about the characters right away, they quickly become full-blown people in your mind – ones with rich and complicated pasts. Their big personalities are all you need for this story, and how they mesh and collide and repel and rub up against each other until they just can’t anymore.

Bill at The Australian Legend read and reviewed Monkey Grip, Garner’s first novel, and in his review I learned that she is known for her autofiction. Everything about The Spare Room screams real life to me (including the fact that the protagonist’s name is Helen). Bill also mentions Garner’s “deep connection to co-operative living, to co-operation between women, to caring for others,” all themes that show up in The Spare Room.

Helen is determined to take care of her friend after learning about her stage 4 cancer. But Nicola has other things in mind – getting better! She signs up for–and shells out a lot of money for–an alternative medical clinic that administers ozone treatments and intravenous vitamin C that leave Nicola weak and in a lot of pain. She believes this is the toxins leaving her body. The longer this goes on and Nicola continues her charade of “all is well… I’m getting better… let’s pretend I’m not sick and dying,” the more frustrated Helen becomes. Nicola’s denial is actually making Helen’s efforts much more exhausting and doing a bang-up job of stoking her anger. Eventually, the situation comes to a head.

“She’s cast us as the carriers of all the bad stuff–and somehow we’ve let her. She sails about with that ghastly smile on her face, telling everyone she’s going to be better by the middle of next week, and meanwhile we’re trawling along the bottom picking up all the anguish and rage that she’s thrown overboard.”

I love the realness of this story with its anger and messiness and love and friendship. How much can you give to someone else at the expense of yourself?


I read this book for Bill’s AWW (Australian Women Writers) Gen 4 Week. Next year, he’ll be focusing on Gen 5!

I’d also like to take this chance to say Hello! to my other Australian blogging friends who are taking part in Bill’s event (and who I don’t visit as often as I would like): Brona at This Reading Life, Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, Kim at Reading Matters, and Susan at Whispering Gums.

Do you have a favourite Australian author or book? I’d love to hear about it!

43 thoughts on “The Spare Room by Helen Garner

  1. mementominnie says:

    Just read this.Decided not to give it to my two friends..one is 80,the other chronically ill,because it was so harrowing.Think the fact that the “healing”was a sham added to the mood of simmering rage and terror.Interesting contrast to Elizabeth Berg’s “Talk before Sleep”.Which I DID give to my friends.

    • Naomi says:

      I can see why this book could be upsetting for them. I haven’t read the other, so don’t know how they compare. Thanks for sharing your opinion and story – it might be helpful to other readers!

  2. A Life in Books says:

    I’ve read this twice, once when it was first published in 2008 and again around three years ago when it had lost none of its power for me. Such an honest piece of writing, raw yet polishd if that makes sense!

    • Naomi says:

      I keep forgetting Jane Harper is Australian. I sometimes can’t find the Australian books I’m looking for at the library, but I know we have her!

      • Marcie McCauley says:

        OOooo, Bill has definite o-p-i-n-i-o-n-s about Harper! LOL Not about her ability to tell a story, but about her depiction of the geography and some details of setting? I’m curious about the details but haven’t properly queried or explored because I hadn’t actually read of her stuff myself and have a million of mysteries in mind already.

      • Naomi says:

        Oh, I didn’t know that. I might go have a look on his blog to see what he has to say! Of course, I would never know if there were issues with her settings, having never been to Australia…

  3. kimbofo says:

    Oh, this is a great book. I don’t normally get on with Garner’s fiction but I adore her non-fiction (she’s written a bunch of true crime stuff, loads of essays etc). The Spare Room is a wonderful portrait of friendship is all it’s pros and cons. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  4. Marcie McCauley says:

    I had this from the library years ago (the cover in the middle, IIRC) and the timing just wasn’t right (similar to the first commenter’s reservations) but I still mean to get back to it sometime. Your response makes me think of the recent Nunez novel about a friend with a fatal diagnosis too.

  5. Cathy746books says:

    I read this in 2020 for Novellas in November and Brona’s Aus Lit Month and thought it was really powerful. I’ve also read House of Grief by Garner, which is tough going but really impressive.

    • Brona's Books says:

      I also read this the same time as Cathy for the same reasons.
      I was really upset by the end, by the shoddy medical healers who took advantage of sick and dying people just to make money!

      I can also recommend This House of Grief. It was powerful, confronting but compassionate to its very core.

      • Naomi says:

        Thanks for your House of Grief recommendation, Brona!

        The Spare Room is upsetting, but not in the way you would expect it to be. It was for the reasons you point out, and her dogged determination to be cheerful and get better. Just pretending to be cheerful and fine all the time must have been exhausting!

  6. mementominnie says:

    For a more cheerful? take on dying friends another Elizabeth Berg..Don’t Ever Change..a death doula befriends a dying man and keeps him company on his path to dying on his own terms..

  7. mementominnie says:

    Discovered her only the last couple of years..always grab her..so to speak..if see the books at our monthly booksale.Books all a dollar each..and I have found some real treasures.So,yes,have a space for Elizabeth on my tottering shelves😊

  8. annelogan17 says:

    I can’t remember if I read the Spare Room or not ( I don’t have my list handy) but it sounds vaguely familiar, and I’ve heard wonderful things about her books. Australian literature is such a blank space on my brain, I need to read more of it!

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