Helen Garner Watch #2

Reviews of The Spare Room

Darlene on "Larvatus Prodeo":

After finding Garner an intrusive and maddening presence in journalistic efforts such as Joe Cinque's Consolation, it's a relief to discover that "fictional" Helen, with all her flaws, fury and brutal honesty, is on the side of the good guys.

Right from the start of the book the disparate worldviews of the two main characters are detailed, with Helen's sister declaring during a telephone conversation that Nicola shouldn't be told about the mirror that shattered in the room she's to sleep in during her Melbourne stay.

While neither western medicine nor nutty Vitamin C therapy can save Nicola, whose cancer has progressed to stage four, it's the conventional medicos who know what they're doing and don't peddle false hope. There's a time, The Spare Room argues, to accept your fate.

In "The Monthly" Robert Dessaix has some problems with how to tackle the new work.
Monkey Grip is called a novel, The Children's Bach and Cosmo Cosmolino short novels, and now The Spare Room (Text, 208pp; $29.95) is declared "a perfect novel" by Peter Carey on the back cover. But they 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. So why does Helen Garner at the very least collude in having them called novels? And why does it matter? (Aren't signifiers meant to be floating these days?)

Perhaps she believes that with all that shaping, leaping, trimming and sharpening, her notebooks and diaries actually become novels. Perhaps she still (quite understandably) feels a need to cock a snook at those early critics of her work, such as Peter Corris, who attacked her for publishing her "private journals" rather than writing a novel. Random jottings, they seemed to be saying, about emotional entanglements in dreary suburbs with the odd thought about the meaning of life thrown in don't make you a writer. A real writer, it was implied, writes novels, and a novel is something more sustained, more imagined, more intricately patterned, more whole than the sort of thing Garner writes, however much she trims and transcribes. Just throwing in a bit of "purple prose", as she does in Cosmo Cosmolino, won't do the trick, either.

And a response. I actually don't know what all the fuss is about. If Garner calls it a novel then it is a novel. It's not like she's saying it's a memoir, to which she's added some fictional elements. If she'd done that then there might have been room for discussion. But here? I don't think so.


Deborah Bogle in "The Advertiser":

After the gruelling, 6 1/2-year effort to write Joe Cinque's Constellation -- the project stalled when Anu Singh, who was later convicted of manslaughter, refused to speak to her -- Garner was exhilarated by the sense of freedom she felt in writing The Spare Room.

Unshackled from the ethical responsibilities of writing non-fiction, she found a sense of calm purpose, and completed the book in a little over a year.

"It's quite thrilling," she says. "Even if the story that you're writing has its origins in real experience, in fiction you're free to pull in material from the rest of your life and especially as you get older you've got this stash of experience and it sort of springs to life in your imagination. It's as if the story that you're telling is porous and all this other kind of material can come surging in to enrich it as you go. And that's how I would define the word imagination with this book, that I felt I had a great richness to draw on." Still, she confesses to some anxiety about the response to The Spare Room.

"I've got some old itching scars from what happened to me after The First Stone," she says, "when the feminists came at me with the thumbscrews and the baseball bats.

"So every time a book comes out now, I am anxious, because you don't get over a thrashing like that." What interested her particularly about the experience of caring for the dying -- and "not for a minute" would she pretend that there wasn't a real Nicola -- was the conflicting feelings of anger and resentment, of tenderness, intimacy and grief.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on May 16, 2008 11:06 AM.

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