Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2009

The Spare Room (2008), by Helen Garner, read by Heather Bolton

the-spare-roomI’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 than 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!

The Spare Room has been highly praised and received a number of prestigious awards, so do read alternative opinions to mine: The Age, The Australian, The Guardian, and Larvatus Prodeo.

PS 23.12.09 More about how Garner mines the lives of others in her work can be found in this interview by Kate Legge, the link courtesy of Steven Riddle at a Momentary Taste of Being.

PPS 7/6/22 I’ve just found this 2015 article by Rachel Hennessy, about The First Stone. It’s called Why Helen Garner was Wrong. It expresses better than I ever could why Garner’s judgementalism was destructive.

Author: Helen Garner
Title: The Spare Room
Publisher: Bolinda Audio
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Oh dear, Lisa, you are even harder on Garner than I am. The first stone and Joe Cinque’s consolation made me SO-O-O mad, and it was hard to be mad with the latter one in particular because people felt so sympathetic to the Cinques, and so horrified about the death and its manner, that you felt like a cold b***h if you didn’t agree with Garner’s take. Of course his death was terrible, of course no-one should die the way he did BUT Garner is so unwilling to analyse the situation. Fair enough I suppose, that’s her way. BUT I did, for example, like Chloe Hooper’s The tall man because while she comes to a position on the matter, she does her best to present the complexity of the situation.

    All this said, like you I think she is a great writer – and I can’t be totally cross with her because she is a huge admirer of Elizabeth Jolley and Elizabeth Jolley is one of my all-time favourite authors.

    I liked The spare room though. Sure it’s pretty autobiographical but the thing I like about her (and this also applies really to the aforementioned books) is that she is honest. I don’t think she pretends to be anything other than she is. I mightn’t agree with her but I do like to read her and in The spare room she says things a lot of people would not want to say because we all supposed to be angels of mercy when it comes to sick friends. I don’t really think she took the moral high ground on this one.


  2. Hi Sue, I agree with you entirely about The Tall Man – I thought that was a brilliant book and althoughChloe Hooper’s sympathies were evident, she did indeed bring both sides of a complex situation to our attention. A very brave and thoughtful book that IMO should be very widely read.
    Have I been too hard on Garner? I think it’s sad that a writer of such talent should be plodding around in other people’s misery and (not knowing Garner personally of course) I wonder whether this is just her personality, to be gloomy and judgemental?
    Whatever, I take the book as I find it. Yes, honesty is a good thing, but should it override loyalty and friendship? The subject of her book is dead and can’t defend herself, and if it were not for that too-short passage where Helen and Iris tell Nicola why they like her, there would be no reason for readers to like her either. I think this is unkind, disloyal and brutal to the memory of a friend.
    I do think Garner takes the moral high ground because her position is that Nicola is selfish, making unreasonable demands of her friends. Garner does this from the vantage point of one who has family who she assumes will take care of her when it’s necessary. I wonder if she realises just how much damage her little book could do to women on their own who have no one to turn to except friends, and may feel constrained to ask for help, for fear of being pilloried…


  3. Thanks for your comments on my blog. Gosh, you are active online aren’t you – I looked at your travels with Tim and Lisa – very interesting, and what exotic places you have been to. And also your school stuff, and it is all very interesting. I’ve never heard of Helen Garner, but i notice the book has a five star review on Amazon.


  4. Thanks, Tom:) – I love the online world!
    I think I fit into the category described on the Wikipedia link (see above) i.e. “Not all critics have liked Garner’s work. Goldsworthy writes that “It is certainly the case that Garner is someone whose work elicits strong feelings … and people who dislike her work are profoundly irritated by those who think she is one of the best writers in the country” Lots of people think that she’s brilliant, (and not just on Amazon, she’s won heaps of awards) so if you get the chance, take the opportunity to read something of Garner’s and see what you think!


  5. Ha, ha, Lisa. I put that quote in the Wikipedia article! I did a lot of work on it last year to the extent of going to the NLA and reading some books and articles on her. As I’ve already said, I don’t always agree with her but I think she is great to read!

    Re the moral high ground. I see where you are coming from and from that angle your point is a very reasonable one. It goes to the very centre of the fiction/nonfiction nexus. I guess I looked at it as fiction (albeit that many know the “whos” in the book). All I can say, is that I’m very nervous about the real possibility that one of our children could end up becoming writers!!


  6. ROTFL, I *should have* known!


  7. […] mopes around in Coburg in The Spare Room (2008) by Helen Garner.  Christos Tsiolkas shows a Melbourne I do not recognise and certainly […]


  8. […] The Spare Room by Helen Garner  (hooray, an Aussie) […]


  9. […] unflinchingly honest one too. Put these together and the result is a compelling book, even though Lisa at ANZLitlovers doesn’t quite agree. Actually, both of us disagree with much of the way Garner […]


  10. Regarding Helen Garner’s ‘The Spare Room’–this is a novel, and ‘Helen,’ the character, isn’t Helen Garner. We all write more or less from our own experience–this is how we do write. Even in works that are totally imaginative, that imagination is informed by life experience. I find this novel searingly honest, owning those efforts to control, making known the mistakes that one can make in such a situation, describing the experience and the deep sense of regret. One has to put ego on hold for such honest writing, as the character exposes herself and her attitudes for all to read (and judge) without trying to justify anything. The so-called whinging character is written as she is. That is the point. Making an emotional judgement on the author misses the point; surely judgement should concern itself with the integrity of the novel itself, and not confuse the book with its author.


    • Hi Leonie, thanks for joining in the conversation:)
      *grin* Garner does divide her readers into camps, eh? There are those who love her work, and others like me who just don’t like it at all.
      I take your point about ‘making emotional judgements’ but the problem is that (as I wrote above) I can’t judge the book’s integrity as a novel because I don’t think it is a novel. I think (on the basis of what I’ve read elsewhere) it’s a very thinly disguised memoir. But even if it’s not, I still don’t like it. I think it’s distasteful.


  11. […] recent WA Premier’s Awards, including Garner’s success with This House of Grief and (here) for The Spare Room […]


  12. […] of her Garner posts (here) Lisa at ANZLitLovers is not a fan but she has reviewed The Spare Room (here) My review of Garner’s essay collection The Feel of Steel […]


  13. […] Lisa @ANZLit Lovers […]


  14. […] You can find Lisa’s (from ‘ANZ Litlovers’) nuanced review of the book here. […]


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