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The Spare Room

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  5,645 ratings  ·  748 reviews
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,
Hardcover, 175 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 intere…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)

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Average rating 3.79  · 
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Bionic Jean
Jul 23, 2013 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, a
Paul Bryant
Three years ago two of my close friends died of cancer within four months. It was really a terrible year. With my friend Jim, it was a long drawn-out affair. He’d beaten lymphoma 25 years earlier. Then it came back. But the cancer didn’t kill him directly. It broke his immune system so that repeated exhausting bouts of infections and pneumonia finally did. He had been in & out of hospital for months.

With my friend Nick (previously the healthiest of us all, the one who was doing the half maratho
Jul 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have never seen a human heart. Its biological constituents are a mystery to me. I am ignorant when it comes to the appearance of someone else’s heart but I know, I know how mine looks. My heart has a tiered structure. I am yet to figure out how many tiers my heart has, but at the lowermost section is a spare room. The spare room is reserved for bubbling and sanctimonious human lives spread all over our beloved earth. You knock down a wide geographical expanse, my heart bleeds. You selflessly p ...more
May 02, 2014 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
Diane in Australia
Nov 10, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Diane in Australia by: Anna
Shelves: fiction
I have mixed feelings about this book. Helen is a terrific writer, so, no problems with that. The story is about two friends, one with end-stage cancer, Nicola, and the other, Helen, takes care of her, for a short while, in her spare room.

The story is a thinly veiled reference to the death of Helen Garner's friend, Jenya Osbourne. Helen watched Jenya hide her fear by always being 'cheery', and insisted that her painful treatments would soon cure her. Of course, Nicola is not exactly Jenya, and '
Oct 20, 2008 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
Apr 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed a collection of Helen Garner's short stories which I read relatively recently, and looked forward to giving her novel, The Spare Room, a go. Thoughtful and meditative, with a definite power, this novel took my breath away as it reached its end. Garner's beautiful writing is so detailed in its depictions, and the narrative voice immediately felt authentic. Spare Room is a very human portrayal of what it means to live with cancer, and what it is like to witness a loved one sufferi ...more
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
Apr 10, 2008 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.... ...more
Claire Fuller
Mar 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is based (or at least inspired by) a situation (or several) that Garner found herself in: caring for friends with terminal cancer. The narrator in the book is called Helen, and the style was refreshingly frank, personal, real. Helen's friend, Nicola comes to stay with her in Melbourne in order to have some alternative treatments for the terminal cancer she is facing. But Nicola is in denial both about the terminal nature of her cancer, and the crank therapies she is undergoing. Helen hopes ...more
Jun 30, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: novels
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
Feb 07, 2009 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
Jim Coughenour
Jan 12, 2010 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
Aug 12, 2014 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
Amy Polyreader
A beautiful articulation of an emotionally harrowing experience. I devoured it. Full review to come.
Nov 30, 2009 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
Dec 02, 2012 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 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
Sep 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Marianna the Booklover
Short and powerful. A well-written and gritty story of two older women whose friendship is tested to the limits by cancer. What would you do if your good friend turned up to stay with you for three weeks to undergo some alternative cancer treatments you don't believe in (ozone tents, intravenous vitamin C, coffee enema - that kind of stuff) but she does and is convinced they will definitely cure her? Would you look after her every day, feed her, wash her sweat-soaked sheets and clothes, watch he ...more
Apr 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
First and only book I've read by Helen Garner and it was very good. Easy to read and gives a very good insight into looking after and caring for a sick person and the emotions involved.
Even better this wasn't a novel, it was real and you could feel the love, the tension and even the tiredness of situation Helen Garner was in.
It is heartfelt, loyal and sometimes hard to read as you can feel how difficult it would be to look after someone you love, someone who is sick and someone who has their own
Ann Single
Oct 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Out of all Helen Garner’s books, this is the one which exemplifies why I love her work. How impossible would it be to record caring for a terminally ill friend and not fall into sentimentality and platitudes? But because Garner can hear her own voice, she offers us a compelling read.
Diane Barnes
Oct 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Have to think about this one for a while.
Sep 02, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Helen Garner writes with deceptive simplicity and sly humour as she captures the tumultuous relationship that develops between two friends when one chooses to seek alternative treatment for a terminal illness. While Garner (fictionally) represents herself as a grim, angry realist and her friend as a fanciful dreamer she also shows that ultimately their friendship triumphs.
Jennifer (JC-S)
Apr 05, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: librarybooks
‘It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep.’

Nicola, a friend in end-stage cancer pursuing alternative treatment, comes to stay with Helen. This is the broad canvas upon which themes including friendship, emotions, denial and preparation for death are layered.

Helen’s preparations for the visit of Nicola show a wonderful sense of caring, controlled preparation. Nicola herself is still in denial, and needs Helen to help her to accept as much as she needs Helen’s presence
Lisa  (not getting friends updates) 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
May 26, 2012 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
Dec 07, 2009 rated it it was ok
Two weeks in the life of a caregiver/friend of a woman who was struggling with life and threat of death due to cancer. I had a similar experience that lasted over 1 1/2 years with my close friend, but my feelings were so incredibly different. I felt the book - even disregarding my opinion - was unrealistic, as this caregiver only gave 2 weeks of her life to her friend and complained and complained and complained. A person who has cancer "may" be grasping at straws, but when you want to live, the ...more
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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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