Combined Reviews: The Spare Room by Helen Garner

spare_room.jpg Reviews of The Spare Room
Helen Garner
Text Publishing

[This novel has been shortlisted for the Best Book award in the South East Asia and the Pacific region of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. In 2008 it won the Victorian Premier's and the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards for Fiction.]

From the publisher's page:

Helen lovingly prepares her spare room for her friend Nicola. She is coming to visit for three weeks, to receive treatment she believes will cure her cancer. From the moment Nicola staggers off the plane, gaunt and hoarse but still somehow grand, Helen becomes her nurse, her guardian angel and her stony judge. The Spare Room tells a story of compassion, humour and rage. The two women -- one sceptical, one stubbornly serene -- negotiate an unmapped path through Nicola's bizarre therapy, stumbling towards the novel's terrible and transcendent finale.

Raffaella Barker in "The Independent": "It is difficult to get excited about this book. Helen Garner is a good writer. This is her first novel in 15 years and she has a gift for creating a scene and illustrating character that is airy and enduring and essentially Australian. No one who gets through this book would deny that Garner is skilful. Given that the central character is a woman writer in her sixties called Helen, it is probable that this is a cathartic exercise for her following a traumatic life experience of her own, but I am not convinced that it needs to be inflicted up on the reading public. It is just too depressing. It is the business of a novel to transform experience, not just for the sake of it but to illuminate our minds and to touch our hearts. If we want veritas we read non fiction, and there are numerous moving memoirs about cancer which may well provide comfort through the solidarity of shared experience and which could perhaps show us how to grieve."
Susie Boyt in "The Financial Times" : "Delivered in an almost conversational tone, this is an unsettling and skilled work that raises important questions about the process of dying and what caring well for the dying requires. Is the etiquette of death yet to be devised - and ought there to be one? We sometimes behave differently with those facing death - perhaps being economical with the truth orplacating at every turn. Maybe something in us alters or we lower our standards when it comes to caring for the terminally ill. Do we create new rules for ourselves - and is this kindness or cowardice? The Spare Room doesn't shirk from such awful enquiries."
Kate Bateman in "The Irish Times": "The book itself is a little beauty, nice to hold with beautiful end-papers and a silk marker to hold your place...A most appealing feature of this novel is the elegance and taut style of the narrative voice as she gives expression to large and small questions - friendship, death, tolerance, truthfulness, and the work of the day. The authentic, down-under voice sustains the work through thoughtful and dialogue sequences."
Neel Mukherjee in "The Times": "Only great fiction demands us to reset our moral compass and look at our value coordinates all over again. The Spare Room achieves this by relentlessly working out the dimensions behind the simple words: 'Death will not be denied. To try is grandiose. It drives madness into the soul. It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship, and makes a mockery of love.'"
Olivia Laing in "The Observer": "How we die and how we stand to be with those who are dying are serious questions, but even at the most painful moments Garner maintains a characteristic lightness of touch, a combination of wit and lyricism that is immensely alluring." She concludes that this is an "extraordinary, exhilarating novel".
Stevie Davies in "The Independent": "In Australia, Helen Garner has a controversial reputation for writing fiction as if it were memoir. This compulsively readable, searing novel narrates the author's own nursing of a close friend through terminal cancer. Author and narrator are called Helen. So is this a fictionalised memoir? Not really. It's a fiction about truth; about witnessing to truth -- and, disturbingly, about enforcing it upon the dying. A hymn to friendship tested to its limits, the novel is also a manifesto and a confession."
In "The Monthly" Robert Dessaix has some problems with how to tackle the new work.
Libby Brooks, in "The Guardian", looks at the attention Helen Garner has received and the perceptions that her latest novel, The Spare Room, is based on her own life. She puts the whole idea into perfect context.

It's a beautiful work: the prose is clean and the probing of the duties of friendship subtle. But I also know that a version of Nicola existed in reality - Helen did have a sick friend who came to stay with her, and subsequently died. But Helen's fictional rendering of these sharp realities has now left her exposed, as interviewers and reviewers hint at something underhand, attempting to drag the story back to where they perceive its origins ought to be.

There is, of course, an obvious transformation that occurs when a book is written as fiction. It distinguishes this writer from Frey, and from Margaret Seltzer and Misha Defonseca, whose memoirs about growing up in gangland Los Angeles and the Warsaw ghetto, respectively, were exposed as fraudulent this month. Offering a story in novel form alerts the reader that they would be wrong to assume events happened that way, because the writer has taken all the liberties of compression and conflation and invention that fiction permits.

Short notices

David Pullar on PopMatters: "On first appearances, The Spare Room should be a difficult read. This is not for the words and sentences therein: it's a short book and written in clear, simple prose. It's more that the content appears heavy and rather bleak."
"Publisher's Weekly": "Garner (Monkey Grip) employs her signature realism in this stunted novel about the infuriating and eye-opening experience of caring for a terminally ill loved one."
Madeleine Keane, who is literary editor of "The Sunday Independent" chose the book as one of her books of the year: "The Spare Room by Helen Garner (Cangonate) was an exquisitely-crafted novel which dealt with death -- and the indignities and injustices of cancer -- delicately and unflinchingly with humour and humanity. An overlooked gem."
Natasha on "The Book Crowd" weblog: "I read this book in one night, do I need to say anymore?...I loved this book, the emotions and frustrations seemed quite real, it was a brilliant read that opened my mind to new ways of thinking, living, feeling and understanding."
Harriet Klausner on the "Genre Go Round" weblog: "Although Helen's eternal squabbling and lecturing become irritating as she either needs to support her friend's dying wishes, which centers on miracle treatments that probably will fail or toss her out, readers will relish this poignant character study as the reactions to how to behave when pending death seems shortly."
Keri on the "bloody_keri" weblog: "This is a beautiful, haunting novel that feels like a rare jewel in that way some books do. It's too brief, and that's the first compliment I give it, a rare one given the simple yet devastating subject matter: a woman caring for a friend who is dying in the last stages of cancer. Not something I would normally want to dig into for too long and generally, the more abbreviated the better. Death is easy; the process of dying is one of those unspeakable things; the enormous white elephant in the room. Many writers have touched it, some with more success than others, but I don't think any book I've read on the subject captures the jarring mix of comedy, love and grief this one does."
"The Resident Judge of Port Phillip" weblog: "I loved the embeddedness of this book within Melbourne suburbia, and her confidential and warm tone --like a good, satisfying talk with an old friend."
"Dovegreyreader" : "Susan Hill suggested I read this one and also told me to look carefully at the very clever ending, which I did and yes, how very clever it is. I won't divulge because then you can watch out for it too, it's more about style than plot but such a clever way for a writer to preserve for posterity a moment of utter guilt, trapped like the insect in the amber. Regardless of what may happen next, nothing will assuage Helen's agony over her decision, one that tests her innermost feelings about the bonds of friendship to the very limits and Helen Garner has captured it with utter precision."
The "Nice Lady Doctor" weblog: "In the few hours I was reading it, I learnt more about the psychological effects of a terminal diagnosis on the patient and on his or her carer, than I have in some years as a doctor. It's such a human piece of writing, and so full of affection and humour."
Claire Allfree in "MetroLife": "Garner tackles what could be a dangerously mawkish subject with a cool head and a piercing eye, cutting through the sentimental clutter to the bones of what matters: the selfishness of grief and suffering; the denial and courage that death inspires; and the power of love to keep on going."
Jane Shilling in "The Telegraph": "Garner writes with the cool authority of personal experience, and apprehends Helen and Nicola's loving and warring worlds in such fine and sensuous detail that pain itself is rendered beautiful."


Video of the author being interviewed by Richard Fidler, on "The Conversation Hour", ABC Radio, dated 8 December 2008.
Slow TV has a streaming video of Helen Garner's talk about her influences and inspirations from the 2008 Sydney Writers' Festival.
Deborah Bogle in "The Advertiser".
Susan Wyndham, of "The Sydney Morning Herald", interviewed Garner and found her rather wary.
On the "Readings" website, Michael Williams talks to the author and gathers some insight into her view of character.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 25, 2009 11:26 AM.

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