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The Spare Room

3.67  ·  Rating Details ·  3,544 Ratings  ·  522 Reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 195 pages
Published July 1st 2008 by Canongate Books (first published 2008)
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Juampi Duboué iuvaro I loved The Spare Room and couldn't help but feeling identified with both characters. I saw myself in Nicola and 'Darling Hels' since I am very…moreI loved The Spare Room and couldn't help but feeling identified with both characters. I saw myself in Nicola and 'Darling Hels' since I am very interested in alternative treatments/therapies, however I would never leave traditional medicine aside, so this apparent contradiction is something I live with everyday. I read the book to teach it at the Teacher Training College in a course of Australian Literature and the students loved it and enjoyed debating and discussing the various themes and topics that it dealt with. (less)

Community Reviews

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May 02, 2014 Sharon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Helen is busy preparing the spare room for her friend Nicola who is coming to stay with her for next three weeks. Helen and Nicola have been friends for the past fifteen years. Nicola has terminal cancer and would like Helen to care for her whist she is undergoing treatment.
Helen arrives in plenty of time to pick Nicola up from the airport, but she wasn't expecting to see her friend look so sick, so sick that she could hardly walk. Of course Nicola insists it was just the flight that has taken i
Jul 23, 2013 Jean rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-authors-e-h
The Spare Room is a shortish novel from 2008 by the Australian writer Helen Garner. It was published to critical acclaim. All the action takes place over the course of three weeks and describes the experience of a woman in Melbourne, Helen, as she finds herself looking after a friend from Sydney, Nicola, who is dying of bowel cancer.

It is an unusual novel as it is told exclusively from the inner perspective of Helen herself. The feelings and emotions experienced by Nicola are never described, an
Tattered Cover Book Store
Award winning writer Helen Garner returns to fiction after 15 years to write this short, intense and beautiful novel about friendship and dying. It seems intimately personal since the narrator is also named Helen, and the emotions are so raw and powerful. The premise--Helen agrees to let her friend stay with her for 3 weeks while she undergoes an alternative cancer therapy in Melbourne (where Helen lives). What she didn't know was just how very sick her friend is. Both women are in their 60s and ...more
3.5 stars for this one. And just a word of warning - it was good, but in no way was it an uplifting and inspirational read. So if you are already feeling a bit blue, this one is not for you. Likewise, if you have recently supported a loved one through a regime of cancer treatment (or perhaps even not so recently), or are going through treatment yourself, or if this is a rather raw subject for any reason, this is probably not the best book for you at this time.

It was rather brutal read, although
Jim Coughenour
Jan 12, 2010 Jim Coughenour rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of Alice Munro et al.
Shelves: bleakfiction
This is the type of book I usually avoid, what I'd classify in my crusty bachelor mentality as a "woman's book," full of sisterly strength and taut spinsterly emotions. But when I came across it in the Guardian's list of "The decade's best unread books" I was curious enough to give it a try.

I was right. It was exactly what I'd suspected – and it was very well done. Garner tells her story in a flat voice, wry, understated and convincing. Solid characters and completely believable; it read like a
Nov 30, 2009 Anna rated it liked it
Shelves: weepy-good, hard-tack
While I personally find Helen Garner as a person as bad as nails on a blackboard, her writing is often engaging - reading her is a good exercise in the moral right any author has to be separate from her work, even non-fiction. She stretches my abilities in this department because everything in her books revolves around the Copernican universe of Helen, or seems to.

This is a hard but rewarding read if you've ever nursed anyone through a terminal illness, or perhaps even just had the shits with a
Feb 07, 2009 Louise rated it really liked it
I found this book to be very realistic in the way Garner handled the anger that comes along with death and grief.

The tale of two friends, one dying of cancer, the other her temporary refuge while she undergoes 'experimental' (read quack) treatment for cancer.

In Nicola, the free-spirited, grande dame with cancer, I found almost nothing sympathetic. Dramatically refusing to admit there 's anything seriously wrong, she creates huge vats of boiling anger in all of her friends and family.

The brutal h
Oct 20, 2008 Nettie rated it it was amazing
This is a pretty brash and unsentimental look at the nature of friendship under dire strain. Nicola has cancer and comes to stay with Helen while she undergoes alternative treatment, much to Helen's concern. Their differing views on treatment and pain management for Nicola drive Helen to the brink of love for her friend. I loved the honesty of this book. It was a little hard to read at times - the raw honesty of friendship, even in despair. A short book - read in a weekend, and I'm a slow reader ...more
Helen Crozier
Apr 10, 2008 Helen Crozier rated it really liked it
Shelves: australian
A beautiful book. I saw Helen interviewed last night at Gleebooks - it was great to be in this packed room and see her in person. It's a quick but very emotional read. I'm going to read it again and will do a better review. I read it in one sitting.... the story was about death but was so alive....
Dec 02, 2012 Sonia rated it liked it
This review was originally posted at my blog

I have a hardcover edition of The Spare Room. I think it’s important to have the hardcover. Like Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending, The Spare Room is less than 200 pages. I would feel that the novel in paperback would diminish the story somehow; that it was a slight of a book – and it is not.

Helen hosts a friend, Nicola, for three weeks at her place. Nicola is in Melbourne for cancer treatment. Helen is her friend
Jun 18, 2009 Alice rated it really liked it
So, I guess we all kind of know about The Spare Room because it was all "Omg Helen Garner! Let's try and make her angry and see what she does!" Personally, I think that's a shame, because it overshadowed what I reckon is a really honest and probably quite necessary look at cancer (make that any terminal illness) and death, and what they do to relationships.

As so many people have said before and will continue to, Helen Garner's writing is as breathtaking as it is sparse. It's like walking into a
Jun 30, 2009 Alan rated it really liked it
Shelves: novels, read-in-2009
A woman with cancer, Nicola, comes to stay with her friend, Helen, for a few weeks. She attends alternative therapy sessions - Vitamin C, apricot pits, 'cupping' - to no avail. The description of pain and clearing up the bedsheets etc is acute and harrowing but clear eyed and without sentiment. It is billed as a novel, but the main character besides being called Helen is also a writer, and it reads like non fiction. Relief comes in the form of the child next door who cuts through the adults' tal ...more
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Helen prepares her spare room for her friend, Nicola. Nicola has advanced cancer and is coming to stay with Helen while she undergoes an unorthodox treatment.

I can’t say enough good things about this book. The relationship between Nicola, the gadabout, and Helen, the steady and loyal friend, is fascinating. The contrast between Bess, the young granddaughter and Nicola, dying friend, is fascinating. The author allows the story to tell itself, a simple story, yet full of complexity.

I felt every e
Vestal McIntyre
This was probably one of the two or three best books I've read in the last year, and it definitely has the most memorable character. Nicola is glamorous, frustrating, loveable, unbearable--and utterly real. The prose is crystal-clear and informal, allowing the characters to shine through. A quiet masterpiece that left me completely awe-inspired.
Mar 27, 2017 Chelsea rated it really liked it
Delightful. A delicate vignette of the protagonist's experience of care-giving, but recognising that both care-giver and care-receiver can be flawed and difficult, even in the final days.
Lisa Vegan
This probably deserves 4 or even 5 stars, given how much I enjoyed it, how I couldn’t put it down, even though I didn’t at all like one of the main characters, the woman who’s dying of cancer.

This story is about two friends in their sixties, who’ve known each other for about fifteen years. The narrator (Helen, same first name as the author) lives in Melbourne, Australia, by herself, next door to her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, and her friend (Nicola) from Syndney, who is to get three
Nov 01, 2011 Abby rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I requested this book from the LTER program based on its glowing reviews. It wasn't until I had the book in my hand that I wondered if I really wanted to read about a woman caring for a terminally ill friend. It was almost as if I knew everything I needed to know without reading a word. There would be pain and suffering, anger and denial, eventual acceptance and the inevitable end. But I read the book in one sitting and was both drained and exhilarated at the end. I had underestimated the extent ...more
May 12, 2014 Eli rated it liked it
The book was brutal. I used to LOVE brutal. But it seems like I don't any more. Life's been brutal enough recently and what I really, really need right now is a small, delightful book to change my mood or something.
But for this book, I could say that I felt pain while reading it. The anger, the grief, the cancer. You know it's too much even for the reader and I can't imagine what "not-so-imaginary" Helen has gone through. Because really, I believe it was more of a personal experience of the auth
May 26, 2012 Thoraiya rated it it was amazing
Even though this book made me furious, I admired the structure, the language and the compelling nature of it.

When I learned that Garner deliberately named the narrator after herself (and made her a writer) because she wanted to explore the anger that caring for her dying friend had provoked in her, I suddenly understood that I wasn't JUST angry because scamming the desperate terminally ill happens every day in real life, but because Helen's anger was seeping into me.

While I don't think I would h
Kate Forsyth
I heard Helen speak in London and thought she was warm and funny and beautifully articulate, so I was very pleased to have her sign my copy of her first novel in sixteen years, The Spare Room. Published in 2008, the novel won a swathe of awards including the Barbara Jefferis Award. It reads more like a memoir, being told from the first person point of view of a writer named Helen living in Melbourne and being inspired by events that actually happened in Helen Garner’s life. However, no doubt man ...more
Aug 12, 2014 Liza rated it it was ok
Oh good grief! The melodrama! I have never written a review before but this book has me so cranky at 5am that I feel compelled to.

I must be a dreadful person because what despicable characters I found these two women. I cannot imagine ever taking in nor staying with someone in their respective circumstances. Take some freakin personal responsibility for your life situation instead of bombarding your supposed loved-ones with your selfish emotions!! Well written or not I am so pleased these are no
Apr 01, 2015 Sarah rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
I've never before read a portrayal of women's friendship quite like this. Helen lovingly prepared to receive her longtime friend Nicola who is battling terminal cancer. As Nicola undergoes alternative therapies which leave her incoherent and exhausted, Helen feels Nicola is "telling everyone she's going to get better and meanwhile we're trawling along the bottom picking up all the anguish and rage she's thrown overboard". The dark sides of friendship are exposed. A little gem of a novel.
Feb 23, 2009 Tee rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a pretty brash and unsentimental look at the nature of friendship under dire strain. Nicola has cancer and comes to stay with Helen while she undergoes alternative treatment, much to Helen's concern. Their differing views on treatment and pain management for Nicola drive Helen to the brink of love for her friend. I loved the honesty of this book. It was a little hard to read at times - the raw honesty of friendship, even in despair. A short book - read in a weekend
Maura Kenny
Nov 03, 2015 Maura Kenny rated it really liked it
Took me a while to get to this book (although was all too aware of its presence) until dementia finally removed my father altogether from the world. I could therefore resonate with both characters - the primitive powerful will to live under any painful circumstances and the exasperation and exhaustion of those tending terminal illness. Helen Garner is masterful at telling this story.
Rachel Deakin
Feb 23, 2015 Rachel Deakin rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Sorry, but did anything actually happen/get fully resolved/confirmed across these 200 pages? I don't think so...
The writing was terrible and I had no attachment to any of the characters, and therefore felt absolutely nothing for them.
Feb 18, 2009 Mary rated it really liked it
Enjoyed her frank discussion of the troubles and joys of caring for her friend with terminal cancer, as the friend sinks deeper into denial. There is a final resolution, but the book as a whole is rather difficult.
This was such a boring read. I don't really know what the point of it was. Both Helen and Nicola were annoying characters and their reactions didn't seem realistic to me at all. So glad to be done with this book.
Melody Warnick
Jan 03, 2017 Melody Warnick rated it really liked it
When the author gives the protagonist of her novel her own first name, isn't that code for "this isn't really fiction"?
Great book!
Apr 24, 2017 Iva rated it really liked it
This is an examination of friendship. Others have examined this theme in non-fiction. I am thinking of Gail Caldwell's wonderful Let's Take the Long Way Home. The loss of a colorful, important friend is explored. This is not a spoiler as one learns of Nicola's visit for her alternative cancer treatments right away. Nicola is fascinating and charming and as she puts faith in these "healers" the reader (as well as the narrator) puzzles about how this bright woman can be so gullible. A compelling r ...more
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the spare room 2 45 Apr 05, 2013 09:02AM  
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Helen Garner was born in Geelong in 1942. She has published many works of fiction including Monkey Grip, Cosmo Cosmolino and The Children's Bach. Her fiction has won numerous awards. She is also one of Australia's most respected non-fiction writers, and received a Walkley Award for journalism in 1993.

Her most recent books are The First Stone, True Stories, My Hard Heart, The Feel of Stone and Joe
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“I had always thought that sorrow was the most exhausting of the emotions. Now I knew that it was anger.” 6 likes
“Death will not be denied. To try is grandiose. It drives madness into the soul. It leaches out virtue. It injects poison into friendship, and makes a mockery of love.” 6 likes
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