Helen Garner – The Spare Room

“I was no use to anyone in this state, poisoned and choking with rage,” thought our narrator. It hadn’t helped that as the professor left, he couldn’t help but part a remark over his shoulder.

“Much better weather we’ve been having this week, isn’t it?”

“A perfect novel,” Peter Carey called it. Not without its problems, I would say.

For those acquainted with Australian fiction, Helen Garner is an author of refreshing curiosity. Far from the outback of country Victoria, Garner intimates narratives of city life.  Built upon her experiences in life, her prose is blunt and free-spoken; at home in a country that on its surface is complicated, but sees itself as care-free and honest.

Known for her particular brand of investigative journalism (which she writes like fiction), Helen Garner reemerges onto the fiction scene with her multi-award winning novel, “The Spare Room” – a human and compelling rendition of the themes in which it explores.

The story begins when the narrator sacrificed to her terminally ill friend, Nicola, her spare room, and with it, her social life and work commitments, to undertake round the clock care – in short:

“I learned to wash her arse…as gently as I had washed my sister’s and my mother’s and as some day someone will have have to wash mine”

Of course, the scope of “The Spare Room” isn’t as care-free as one of only love and sacrifice – it’s complicated. As a character, Nicola is given to alternative medicines, and inevitably, the relationship of care and tolerance give way to frustration and anger.

Remember earlier when I wrote that Garner writes journalism like fiction?

The protagonist too, is named Helen, supposedly based on the author’s identical experiences. Non-fiction or fiction – Helen Garner since the inception of her authorship, has always straddled the line between biography and fiction, and has always had a method of making fiction seem real and real larger than life.

Unfortunately, it’s this very element that prevents novels like these from garnering the international attention they deserve. Set in the streets of Melbourne, the Spare Room references alleys and suburbs that for Melbournians, brings the novel closer to home – but for international readers, it’s too local, and distracts from its universal themes.

A perfect novel? No.

But does it deserve your attention?



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