I’m not fond of Garner’s writing but there are writers that one has to read, just to be able to join in the conversation. Back in 1977 I tossed Monkey Grip aside because I wasn’t interested; I thought that The First Stone (1995) was fine writing but unfair to the people she wrote about; and Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) was a mawkish intrusion into the grief of a bereaved family.
With breath-taking arrogance and highly selective use of court proceedings, Joe Cinque’s Consolation purported to offer a kind of pseudo-justice for the family of the murdered Joe Cinque, because Garner seemed to have decided that justice had been denied to them. The book asserts that she, a journalist, has an understanding of events that is morally and intellectually superior to that of the judge who heard the case in court. Her empathy extended only to people who had the same view as her: she scorned the young journalists covering the court case because they weren’t prepared to spend their days at the Cinque household intruding on the mother’s grief and so therefore their perspective was flawed and worthless.
And now The Spare Room. It claims to be a novel but plenty of reviewers have come to the conclusion that it’s thinly-disguised non-fiction and that there was some kind of catharsis for Garner in writing it. All writers mine their own life experiences to some extent, but Garner, in my opinion, goes too far. Wikipedia even identifies the real Nicola, but I think that’s cruel, so I won’t.
At some time or another all of us must come to terms with the loss of a friend, and some circumstances can make it more distressing than necessary. Some years ago a friend of mine was dying from leukaemia, and like the central character in Garner’s book, she too was a believer in so-called alternative therapies. Worse then that, she was also a ‘born-again’ Christian, so on the one hand her born-again friends were exhorting her to pray rather than accept any palliative care (because they believed that a miracle to cure her was imminent); and on the other hand her herbalist and naturopath were doping her with therapies that were useless, expensive and incompatible with effective pain relief. It was awful to witness, but it was my friend’s choice, not mine, to make.
From the outset in The Spare Room, the issue is about who has control. Helen the character and Helen the author are one, or so it seems, and she’s very angry. Some reviewers talk about this Helen ‘lovingly preparing the spare room’, but it seems to me that she’s whingeing about how much work it was, even though she doesn’t actually do it for very long. There is a veritable catalogue of complaints dressed up as selfless help and service: changing sodden sheets; making meals uneaten; extra shopping; taxi journeys; days spent in waiting rooms; sleepless nights and even unpleasant details about enemas. It’s not about Nicola; it’s about how angry Helen is with Nicola because Nicola is choosing to die in a way that Helen doesn’t approve of.
I don’t mind Garner’s opinion being different to mine, I mind her positing that it’s the only honourable position to take. In The Spare Room, Nicola won’t die the way that Helen/Helen thinks she should. What she’s done in this book seems to blame her dead friend for being who she was, and immortalised it as poorly disguised ‘fiction’. I hope I never have a ‘friend’ like Garner in my dying days!
Garner’s writing has a tiresome tendency to be judgemental, and it’s a real pity because she writes so well. I find her work self-righteous, sanctimonious, pompous, and intrusive because of the way she so carelessly exploits people to explore their feelings. She seems to position herself on the moral high ground, meaning that her position on any given issue is The Right One, and no morally upright person could consider any alternative.
The narration by Helen Bolton for the audio book, is excellent. She captures the whining tone and self-pitying attitude of the narrator perfectly!
Author: Helen Garner
Title: The Spare Room
Publisher: Bolinda Audio
Source: Kingston Library