Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Spare Room

The Spare Room, by the Australian writer Helen Garner, is both spare and unsparing. Just out in paperback, this is a very short novel, but is all the more resonant and effective for its laser-like concentration on the see-sawing emotions of the central character, a 60ish journalist called Helen. She volunteers to look after Nicola, an extrovert and eccentric friend who is desperately ill with cancer and has turned to a series of medical charlatans for a cure. Helen agrees to put her up for three weeks; it turns out to be much harder than she expects to put up with her.

This novel is good about many things - the dependencies of friendship and caring, the strengths and weaknesses of an older woman, the city of Melbourne, food and drink. It's full of both rawly intense moments and light funny ones. It is beautifully and elegantly controlled, despite its grim subject-matter. The epigraph is from Elizabeth Jolley: 'It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep', about which Garner says:-

I was so struck by it, it stayed in my mind ever since. Like a lot of things that Elizabeth Jolley said, it seems to take the tiny tasks of daily life and make something rich out of them. She seemed to have this wonderful way of connecting humble daily tasks with very deep meanings. So I always knew that I was going to be able to use that as an epigraph when I wanted to write this book, so I did, and I'm glad.

Listen to Helen Garner talking at length about the book here on ABC Radio (with a long reading from the start of the book - and the transcript is here) and read a profile of her in The Australian here. Below, she talks to ABC.


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