Summary and book reviews of The Spare Room by Helen Garner

The Spare Room

A Novel

By Helen Garner

The Spare Room
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2009,
    192 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2010,
    192 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

1

First, in my spare room, I swiveled the bed on to a north-south axis. Isn't that supposed to align the sleeper with the planet's positive energy flow, or something? She would think so. I made it up nicely with a fresh fitted sheet, the pale pink one, since she had a famous feel for color, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.

Would she like a flat pillow or a bulky one? Was she allergic to feathers, or even, as a vegetarian, opposed to their use? I would offer choice. I rounded up all the extra pillows in the house, slid each one into a crisply ironed slip, and plumped them in a row across the head of the bed.

I pulled up the wooden venetian and threw open the window. Air drifted in, smelling leafy, though you couldn't see a leaf unless you forced open the wire screen and leaned right out. She had been staying for months with her niece Iris, on the eighth floor of an art deco apartment block in Elizabeth Bay whose windows, I imagined,...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Beyond the guest room in Helen’s home, are there other images the title The Spare Room brings to mind? How much room, energy, and patience does the narrator, Helen, have to spare?

  2. Discuss your own experiences with caregiving. What are its rewards, and its difficulties? Would you have allowed a friend like Nicola to stay with you until the very end?

  3. What is universal about the way humans handle their own mortality? At what point is Nicola able to accept that her illness is terminal? Is it better to know the outcome of our lives, with an opportunity for a long goodbye?

  4. How does Helen Garner balance humor with the raw reality faced by her characters?

  5. How would you describe the friendship between Helen and Nicola? Are they...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Regardless of the ending, the dynamics of giving and taking would interest anyone that has ever experienced a similar situation. As the caregiver, one may question where to draw the line between allowing the patient as much dignity as possible and stepping in when he or she no longer seems to be rational. As the patient, one may worry about burdening others. Readers that have never played either role aren't likely to be drawn to the more visceral realities of tending to the dying, but the enduring theme of friendship has every potential to override any initial hesitations about this title.   (Reviewed by Karen Rigby).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Alice Sebold
Swift, beautiful, and relentless, The Spare Room is a brutal novel in the best sense.

The Australian - Geoffrey Lehmann

The Spare Room is a story of tough love and friendship and amazement at the bravado and resourcefulness of human beings in the face of death, written in a prose that has surgical precision. This reviewer knows at least one old man who does read novels: himself. Read this novel. It is truer than nonfiction.

The Sunday Times (UK)

In its bleak and highly comic storytelling, in spite, or perhaps, because of its subject matter, The Spare Room could be called a comedy of manners, in that its concern is how people behave towards each other and the repercussion of that behavior. Its embattled characters are so real that by the last page you feel not just that you have read a magnificent novel but that you have experienced life itself.

The Telegraph (UK)

Gripping and invigorating. . . . [Garner's] style, conversational but never slack, is natural, supple, and exact, her way of seeing is acute and sympathetic, you receive an instant impression of being in the company of a congenial friend and it is impossible not to follow her as she brings to life the events and feelings she is exploring. . . . Garner is amply endowed . . . with a writer’s instinct. It has enabled her to make a fiercely truthful book that is also beautiful. . . . A book so sensitive, sad, funny and alive that it surely deserves an honored place on many shelves.

Publishers Weekly

As it wears on, the narrative becomes clouded by litanies of worsening symptoms and platitudes about death, and Helen's bickering about the treatment-while valid-become grating and tiresome.

Kirkus Reviews

Wit, simplicity and scorching honesty distinguish an understated triumph.

Library Journal

Garner's neat prose suits these two crusty dames, who drag themselves through a situation where, ultimately, love is all that counts. Highly recommended

Reader Reviews
Carol

Trying Times
The Spare Room focuses on Helen who decides to take on the role of caretaker for her friend Nicola who has terminal cancer but refuses to consider the possibility of death. My impression was Helen truly cared for Nicola but did not envision the ...   Read More

Lee

The Spare Room
Helen Garner has written a sensitive novel about friendship and death. She cleverly knits them together and writes a profound and gratifying book. Her setting is Australia, and Helen, who lives in Melbourne, is expecting an acquaintance Nicole, ...   Read More

Hayley H.

Wonderful
I knew this book was a novel when I purchased it but forgot very quickly once I began. I am currently caring for a cancer patient at home and have been finding this experience almost unbearable at times, just watching his slow and heartbreaking ...   Read More

Gina

The Spare Room
This was a compelling story. The author successfully conveys the complexities of witnessing a loved one's move toward death. Contrary to the subject matter, it is not depressing...rather the story is affirming. I liked it fine.

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Cancer is the term used to describe any malignant growth or tumor caused by abnormal and uncontrolled cell division.  A cancer is described as Stage 4 when it has spread from the original site to other parts of the body. When we first meet Nicola, she has already undergone surgery and chemotherapy. Below are some of the alternative treatments she tries during the course of the book:

Colon Therapy
The American Cancer Society has a poor view of colon therapy which involves the cleansing of the large intestine with up to 20 gallons of liquid that might include water, herbal solutions, enzymes or other substances such as coffee.  Proponents of colon therapy say that detoxifying the body through the removal of ...

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