Helen Garner's The Spare Room left me staring at the wall

Text Publishing, 2008, 9781921351396 (Aus, US)

The Spare Room left me staring at the wall of my bedroom. The illness of Nicola, the anger of Helen – a few weeks pass in a few reading hours, simply told but infinite. I stare at the wall and realise this novel will take hold of me over the years. Things that are ahead – inevitable illnesses of parents, family, friends. Friendships becoming more or less intimate. Sharing people with others. Moments of stoicism, loneliness, frustration. The growing and burgeoning love for Melbourne, the setting of the book and my new home.

The novel’s moments will show up, unexpected, through the course of my life. I will revisit it. I might cry, later on. I’ll remember how someone had written about this searing, exhausting anger. There’ll be a house with a spare room that I will be setting up. There’ll be a time when, like the character Hel after the magician’s show, I’ll decide to willfully suspend disbelief.

I love the way Hel sizes up the people she meets, and is attracted to anyone with a strong, rigourous and honest character. She observes body types. She makes little judgments everywhere. The character is so vivid I feel I miss her, after closing the book. I miss Nicola too, but I understand Hel, in some partly-lived, partly-projected fashion.

The book is tonally unsentimental, and yet has a tide that surges – a complex, not always pleasant well of human emotion, dealings, longing, loving, hoping, knowing, guilt and being pissed off. Simultaneous. I stare at the wall and I learn. As a writer, as a person, as a friend, as a family member, as a writer especially –  I learn that I have much to learn. I am moved to helpless staring.

3 thoughts on “Helen Garner's The Spare Room left me staring at the wall

  1. It’s a wonderful book. The narrator’s voice reminds me of Monkey Grip and, because I’m so ancient, I remember some dismissive reviews that book provoked. (Helen Garner has published her diaries and calls it a novel.) This time around there’s been more of the same. In a review of The Spare Room for London’s Telegraph, Diana Athill explains the novelist’s gift to those dull critics:

    ‘A good book dictates its own form, as though it were compelled to be more than just a telling of what happened and must become both an artifact conveying the truth of those happenings and a thing to be valued for its own sake. The novelist Jean Rhys used to say: “A book has to have a shape, and life hasn’t, that’s the problem.” Finding the shape, hitting on the right way to combine the pursuit of truth with the achievement of shape, demands a writer’s instinct, something with which Garner is amply endowed. It has enabled her to make a fiercely truthful book that is also beautiful.’

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