Helen Garner: The Spare Room (2008)


Helen Garner’s The Spare Room was one of the books I found at work. I started it immediately and finished it almost in one sitting. Garner has chosen a difficult topic and written about it beautifully. Despite the sad topic, it’s an uplifting book.

Helen’s friend Nicola is very ill. She has stage four metastatic cancer. This means it’s terminal. Chances that she will recover are less than minimal. Looking for a miracle cure she asks her friend if she can stay with her in Melbourne for three weeks. Helen doesn’t know any details. She doesn’t know that Nicola is in denial. She just wants to help her friend and accepts.

Nicola always used to believe in alternative medicine. But what works for all sorts of ailments, does not work for terminal cancer. Many late stage cancer patients cannot accept the fact that they are dying which makes them an easy prey for frauds and con men. The clinic Nicola will visit during her stay is not much different. The cure has no value but terrible side effects. And it costs a fortune. What Nicola would really need is palliative care but she thinks getting palliative care will speed up her death.

Caring for her friend is beyond Helen’s strengths. Like Nicola, she is over 60 and washing sweaty bed sheets every night, seeing her friend in horrible pain and denial sucks all her energy from her.

“It’s just that in my work,” said Carmel, “I’ve learnt that there are people who never, ever face the fact that death’s coming to them. They go on fighting right up to their last breath.” She paused. “And it is one way of doing it.”

This must sound like a bleak story but it’s not. It’s honest and even funny, stripped of everything but the bare reality. The worst part is that the two women have to live a fake relationship as Nicola doesn’t want to accept she will not be cured. She smiles constantly, pretending everything is alright. She doesn’t want to feel her emotions and in doing so triggers them in others. All those who care for her feel desperate, sad and angry while she keeps on grinning.

When Helen is at the end of her strength, she confronts her demonstrating that sometimes you really have to be cruel to be kind. When they finally speak openly about the fake cure and the probability that Nicola will die, things get better and they are able to live moments of true friendship again.

Oh, I loved her for the way she made me laugh. She was the least self-important person I knew, the kindest, the least bitchy. I couldn’t imagine the world without her.

I devoured this book. Its spare prose is beautiful. Its honesty was soothing.

I’ve seen this happen quite a few times around me. People get very ill, terminally ill but until the last moment they deny it. No real conversations are possible and what little time is left is spent chasing a miracle cure.

But Garner goes one step further. She also writes about the caregiver and how incredibly strong you must be to perform the tasks which are needed. How much you may come to hate the person who depends on you because it’s so tiring and stressful.

The Spare Room is astonishing because it’s so well written and manages to be ultimately uplifting through its gentle humour, honesty and in  showing what true friendship can achieve.

This review is my first contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge 2013


We all know that search engines work in mysterious ways that’s why I add this caveat: 

For anyone reading this who is afflicted by cancer or has friends or family who are ill, please be aware, that the case in this book is not just a simple case. It’s a stage four metastatic cancer. I’m saying this because I don’t want to rob anyone of their hope. Many cancer patients, especially when their illness has been discovered early on, can be cured, notably when the tumour is operable. There are but a few types like the very aggressive malignant glioblastoma multiforme which leave you with hardly any chance.

33 thoughts on “Helen Garner: The Spare Room (2008)

  1. Sounds like an excellent read, Caroline. I went through a similar experience with my cousin who died of cancer at the age of 35. She fought to the bitter end and it exhausted everyone around her. I understood her attitude, though, because she was far too young to go.

    • It really is excellent. Honest but still uplifting.
      Yes, I can understand you’d want to fight and in mny cases that’ very important but once doctors tell you it’s terminal which they don’t say lightly I think there’s a moment yoiu have to face it – but that’s theory talking. I’m not in this situation. 35 is very young. How sad.

  2. An excellent review, Caroline. Considering that it’s quite a slim volume, I was really impressed how Garner managed to portray her characters so well in a very short time. It was one of my favourite books of last year.

    • Thanks Fanny. It’s true it feels like a much longer novel. There isn’t a superfluous sentence and the charcaters are very well developed. I want to read another of her books soon.

  3. Nice review, Caroline. It is interesting that the book tells the story partly from the perspective of the caregiver. Helen is an amazing friend for doing what she did. Initially after reading your review, I thought that ‘The Spare Room’ was a novel. But now when I think about it, it looks like a true story. Thanks for this beautiful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. Helen did an amazing thing. I’m not sure whether it’s an autobiographical novel or rather non-fiction. It’s marketed as novel though but chosing the same name for the main charcater must mean something.
      It’s a wonderful book.

  4. Sounds like a wonderful book, Caroline, but one I probably won’t read since I usually avoid death and dying books (and this is not avoidance as much as overload). In spite of that though, I am tempted as it sounds very genuine.

  5. Your commentary is making me think, maybe denial is not such a bad thing in such a case. Maybe a person would be much better off. After all if I am to die tomorrow I think that I would rather not know.

    Your comment at the end is very sensitive and really smart thinking.

    • Thanks Brian. I had to add something. Being diagnosed with cancer is such a shocker and the immune system can work wonders in early stages. It would be awful to think my review pushed someone in the wrong direction.
      I’m not for denial but it’s possible that denial is worse for those around atn for the person who is in denial.

  6. Okay, so I have had a copy of this since it first came out and have put off reading it as the story sounds so heavy and sad–very bleak indeed, but you have convinced me it’s worth getting to sooner than later. I am going to retrieve it from my book room (where books go when they’ve either been read or am not likely to read anytime soon–sort of like being in storage! 🙂 ) and bring it back up to my bedroom and my TBR piles. It sounds like a very brave sort of book. I’m not sure I could do that sort of caregiving, but I suppose you never know what you are capable of until you are in just such a position!

    • I hope you won’t find it too bleak. Nicola’s a great character as well. They both have a lot of humour which makes it bearable. It made me angry to think how many people try to profit from terminally ill people and promise them miracle cures.
      I was wondering if I could help someone like that but I was also wondering if I had as many people as she has who would be willing to do that for me.

      • I’ve pulled out my copy and want to read it soon–I have far too many books started of late (worse than normal unfortunately), but it’s such a slim book I am tempted. I am not very good in really emotional situations and less so with people who are ill (am totally sympathetic, but feel so useless if you know what I mean). But like you say I wonder, too, if there would be someone out there to help me if I was in that situation, too…

        • You’ll see, it reads very quickly and as Tony mentioned in his comment, there is a lot of humour.
          I’m not sure how I would deal. The peole around me, including famila suffered from various forms of mental illness, so I know how to deal in those situations but caring like Helen does… I have no children, I would have to learn from scratch.
          I hope we will not have to find out any day soon who will be there to help us.

  7. I have seen this book on the book store and never even read the blurb as it looks like Romance…now I regret it! If I see it again, I will buy it.

    Friendship is my favorite theme of all story (and that’s why I love The Boosh) and it’s also about cancer. The denial part doesn’t ring a bell to me as I live with a religion that accept death as something usual. When my mom was in critical point, she straight away ask for forgiveness to all her relative because she didn’t want to leave the world with a burden. She even casually mentioned that she might not be able to see Rio (my nephew, I use his photo for my Monday Movie badge) running around…at that time Rio was still crawling.

    • You would like it, I’m sure. I think all the themes, friendship, illness, death, are treated so well.
      Some of the thoughts in the book are almost revolutionary in the West. The way we deal with death has become a farce. I know that in some countries the cancer patients aren’t even told how ill they are.
      Even though it’s different in your culture/religion, I think your mother was very brave. I think the moments you can share, when there is no denila are much more precious.

      • Thank you 🙂
        She was very brave…the sad part was only seeing her in pain.

        In my country, the doctors also don’t tell the patient, they tell it to the family.

  8. Oddly I want to read this one. As you say, the subject matter is depressing, but from your description it’s so much more than that. There’s beauty in everything–that sounds odd and I hope no one finds it offensive. I’ll keep an eye out for this.

    • That’s exactly how I felt about this book.
      It offers a lot. I find it shows well how soothing it can be to be open and honest even in the most difficult circumstances. I hope you can find it. I’d like to know how you like it.

    • Thanks, Lindsay. I’m gald to hear you liked it too. The portrayal of the friendship is very moving. I guess that’w why overall it was powerful but didn’t drag me down.

  9. I was sent this book by a friend, and I’m sure it is really good but I can’t bear cancer narratives (just my own phobia). I’d like to read something else by Helen Garner, though, as I am sure she’s an excellent author. Hard to get hold of in the UK, however.

    • I was wondering if you had read Monkey Grip. I saw a few harsh reviews, a bit like those you mentioned about Signs of Life (which I have just finished and liked).
      I have read a few books about cancer and liked them all as they all focused less on the illness as on the aspects of loss and saying goodbye. But maybe that wouldn’t make it any better for you.

  10. Pingback: There’s Something About Helen « Anne Skyvington

  11. Pingback: Book review – The Spare Room – 4 stars | strivetoengage

  12. Pingback: There's Something About Helen - anne skyvington

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