Friday, December 3, 2010

Review: The Spare Room by Helen Garner


Author: Helen Garner

Genre: Fiction

About (From Amazon) : 

A powerful, witty, and taut novel about a complex friendship between two women—one dying, the other called to care for her—from an internationally acclaimed and award-winning author
How much of ourselves must we give up to help a friend in need? Helen has little idea what lies ahead—and what strength she must muster—when she offers her spare room to an old friend, Nicola, who has arrived in the city for cancer treatment. Skeptical of the medical establishment, and placing all her faith in an alternative health center, Nicola is determined to find her own way to deal with her illness, regardless of the advice Helen offers.
In the weeks that follow, Nicola’s battle for survival will turn not only her own life upside down but also those of everyone around her. The Spare Room is a magical gem of a book—gripping, moving, and unexpectedly funny—that packs a huge punch, charting a friendship as it is tested by the threat of death.

My Thoughts:

The Spare Room is a short novel at 175 pages but it is a fast and gripping novel about friendship and the joys and hardships that can develop when one is dying of cancer. Helen and Nicola have been friends for about 15 years, both in their 60's and they live in different cities in Australia. Nicola has terminal cancer and sets her hopes on getting treatment at an alternative health clinic near Helen. Helen invites Nicola to stay in her spare bedroom  as she undergoes the treatments. Helen is sure that she will be able to care for Nicola, she has no idea that caring for her friend will often bring out a side of herself that she never expected to see. A short, curt bitter and inpatient woman that is full of anger. She thought that she would don her caretaker role and not have a problem, she was in for a surprise. She becomes fiercely protective of Nicola as she believes that Nicola is being taken advantage of and given false hope at the alternative clinic. She learns to understand that when one is dying that a person often either gives in or fights and will try anything to keep them alive and that others can easily take advantage of this desperation. 

I found the story in The Spare Room to be a bit grim at first as it is difficult to read about someone in the process of dying. This book is so much more than that, it is the kind of book that evokes emotions that are unpleasant in the sense that I could identify with the feelings of Helen and her frustration and anger with Nicola's behaviors and with herself and her reactions. It also evokes a sense of emotion that it's not wrong to have feelings of frustration and anger but what is important is what you do with those feelings. I think that most women can identify with a caretaker role and wanting to "help" family and friends who are in a crisis health wise or other type of crisis. What Helen shows in her character is that we can often believe that we can be the Florence Nightingale and have the strength and patience to deal with most any situation. Often times, we can't and until we are in a situation of caretaking we realize the depth of what is required and the emotional toll it can take. It can bring out the best or the worst in you. I haven't been in a role of caretaking someone that was dying but of raising my son who had a myriad of health issues from birth on. He required much patience and dealing with the changes that his health issues brought on was a challenge.  We sought out alternative health specialists to consult with  and were willing to do so in hopes of helping our son. We had to be very level headed in weeding out the ones that could easily take advantage of those  offering miracle cures or questionable treatments. I also saw a patient side of myself, but also the impatient angry side reared it's ugly head and I had to learn to manage that. I never thought that I would have had to deal with the myriad of emotions that I went through. 

The Spare Room also looked at the friendship relationship and how that can be challenged when dealing with a friend who is nearing the end stages of life. This is the kind of book that affected me more deeply than I expected and was one that I had to process a bit as I turned that last page. The novel is based in Australia and I appreciated the descriptions of the city and country, ways of life and how things aren't that much different than here in the states.

Recommend: Yes, If you enjoy fiction that is packed with strength and emotion and explores life & death and the bonds of friendships. If you enjoy fiction set in Australia or Australian writers, definitely check this book out. This would also make a great book to discuss with a book club with it's themes of friendship, aging, death, alternative health and more.

Source: Thank you to the publisher: Macmillan/Picador  sending me a copy of this book to review.

About the Author:

Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Australia, in 1942. Her award-winning books include novels, stories, screenplays, and works of nonfiction, including Monkey Grip, The First Stone, and Joe Cinque’s Consolation. The Spare Room is her first work of fiction in fifteen years. She lives in Australia.

To listen to a wonderful audio with Helen Garner go HERE.

For a reading group guide, go HERE.

For a Q& A with the author, Helen Garner, go HERE.

Check out this wonderful video with the author Helen Garner talking about The Spare Room:


  1. Wow. I have a friend who is battling cancer and has really bucked the system in trying to bring in all kinds of treatments to help in her fight. This sounds like it would really hit home.

  2. I didn't care too much for this one when I read it awhile back. I felt that Helen was a bit too cold towards Nicola (sp?)

    I imagine that caring for someone who refuses to see the writing on the wall would be an incredibly tough experience to go through, but there didn't seem to be an abundance of tender moments between the two. Perhaps it's a way to protect yourself from slowly edge away from the person even though they are sitting right next to you.

    I don't know. I just don't remember feeling too good after I read it.

  3. I really want to read this book, but I'm not sure this is the right time for me to do so. Great review!

  4. What a wonderful review. I'm interested in the dynamics between the two women!!

  5. This is one book I'd like to read. Maybe not right now but it is on my wishlist.

  6. I just glanced through your review and realized that there's no way I could read this now. I went through this with a very close friend almost 3 years ago and it still really hurts.


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